Today is the Sunday after Ascension, a feastday which we in the Church might see as a footnote to the great events of Holy Week and Easter. Rather than a footnote, however, the Ascension is the culmination of Jesus’ work, the crowning act of the Jesus’ mission on earth. He came to us as a baby born to a humble Virgin, he lived a hidden and unremarkable life until the beginning of his ministry in Galilee, which ministry ended when he was rejected and put to death by his own people, only to be raised by the Father three days later. But Jesus’ mission was not complete when he left the tomb. Only now we have come to the crowning act of his work on earth – he leaves.
Jesus’ departure from his disciples surely must have grieved them. As we see in the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, Jesus’ re-appearance fills the apostles with joy. But now after forty days of his continued, embodied presence among them, Jesus leaves. Why does Jesus leave?
In the third part of the Summa Theologiae, S. Thomas Aquinas gives three reasons why Jesus ascended into heaven. Jesus ascended to increase our faith, to uplift our hope, and to direct our charity, or love, to heaven. As we look into these three reasons, we will see that Jesus’ Ascension, the culmination of his mission from the Father, reveals to us something profound about our own mission and call from God, a mission which tends toward the same end as our Lord’s.
Let’s turn first to Thomas Aquinas. As he said, the ascension increases our faith, uplifts our hope, and directs our charity.
Faith, hope, and love – each somehow cultivated by the fact of Jesus’ ascension. Let us start with faith, which is really the lynchpin of Thomas’ insight.
The ascension increases our faith, according to Thomas, because it forces to rely not on our bodily senses or experiences for knowledge of the truth. Jesus does not want us to believe by seeing. We can remember here what Jesus said to the other S. Thomas, the doubting one. “Blessed are they that see not, but believe!”
This, at first, might frustrate us. Would it not be easier to believe in Jesus if we could see him? If Jesus, the immortal and resurrected Son of God, had instead of ascending to the Father walked right into Jerusalem and set himself up as Eternal Cosmic Emperor it would be rather easier to evangelize our world, would it not?
Instead of asking our unbelieving neighbors to believe these ancient biblical and credal dogmas about the Incarnation and so on, we could just turn on C-Span and watch while Jesus gives his annual address to the United Nations.
“See that 2,000 year old man on the TV? That’s Jesus, and you should trust him as your Lord and Savior.”
But Jesus does not do any of this. He recedes from the apostles’ sight. He disappears.
Our faith is in things unseen, indeed only that belief that is not founded on sight is faith, as the writer of Hebrews teaches. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen” (Heb. 11:1).
I truly believe that Fr. Isaac’s has a big beard, but that belief is by sight. I truly believe that Jesus is in the presence of the Father, but that belief is by faith.
Now Jesus was seen, and touched, by his apostles after the resurrection.
Then Jesus was taken from our sight, ascending into the Father’s glory.
There are reliable accounts of Jesus appearing, after his ascension, to individual people. The most famous and reliable of all these is his appearance to Paul on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus.
In principle, Jesus is not invisible. He can be seen, but he is not generally visible in the same way that you and I are visible.
That is, his historical body is not presented directly to our senses.
We can see him with our eyes, but sacramentally, that is, through signs, in the Blessed Sacrament most directly, in each other less so. But in neither case do we see Jesus as a 2,000 year old Palestinian Jew. We see him in the Bread and Wine, in each other.
Which means that we do not directly sense him with our sensory organs. We see him by faith.
The Ascension increases our faith.
Faith is the proper way in which we see the risen and ascended Lord.
But does this not take us back to our original problem? Why faith – why does God require us to see by faith, and not place inarguable evidence of Jesus’ presence before our eyes?
To answer this we must consider the nature of Jesus’ mission from the Father. Jesus was not sent from the Father simply to act within the world as the most powerful agent among many weaker agents.. He was not accomplishing some sort of worldly or temporal goal strictly within the created order. His mission is supernatural and eternal in its scope in its origin, for it comes from the Father.
And since it comes from the Father, his mission is only concluded when he returns to the Father. Jesus ascends for it is the Father’s will; he will accomplish the mission on which the Father had sent him – “that the world through him might be saved” (Jn 3:17).
Jesus, Son of the Divine Father and Son of the Virgin Mary, one total person, returns to the presence of the Father.
This presence is not located within time and space in such a way that we could just see it with our eyes. Jesus’ Ascension is not about him changing places in the Cosmos – the Father is not holding court in the vicinity of Ursa Minor Beta. If so we should each be given a towel at baptism.
Jesus has ascended from the created order into the uncreated presence of God. When we say Jesus has ascended, we are not saying he is in some part of space, but rather is he is not in space, at least not in any way that we could normally sense his presence.
But we are not left to imagine Jesus’ presence, but instead given eyes to see, the eyes of faith. The Ascension increases our faith, because without faith we cannot really see God. Our physical eyes are God’s good work and with them we see many good things, but unaided they cannot see the Good. They cannot even look directly at the sun, what about the Maker of the sun?
But “faith which comes by hearing pierces through the veil.”
Faith heals our spiritual blindness; it is an entirely new way of seeing. By it we perceive the uncreated reality of God. If Jesus were simply presented to our senses, if he had not ascended, we might find some aspects of belief in Jesus easier. But our belief would be impoverished, because it would not ascend into the very presence of the Father. It would be a belief only in what can be sensed. The Ascension increases our faith.
And as it increases our faith, it uplifts our hope, and directs our love.
Thomas Aquinas says this; “By placing in heaven the human nature which He assumed, Christ gave us the hope of going thither” (ST 3.57.2). Christian hope is not directed toward a temporal good but toward the eternal and infinite Good, that is, God himself.
Jesus, not only in his divine nature but also in his human nature, is totally in the presence of that Good. Our hope is that we too, in our human nature, will enjoy that Good likewise. In our flesh we shall see God, speak to him and know him intimately, as friends know each other, face to face. All because Jesus has ascended.
And this is why Thomas Aquinas says the Ascension directs our love to heaven. Remember Jesus’ teaching on the mountain – that we ought not to “lay up treasure on earth, where moth and rust corrupt”, that is do not set our love on things that are corruptible and finite, “but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven… for where you treasure is, there will your heart be also.” He also says, “seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.” (Matt. 6:19-21;33).
Jesus ascended into heaven and so he draws our love beyond the horizons of the world and into the very presence of God himself. Indeed, it is only in love for the uncreated God that love for creatures finds its right orientation.
So faith, hope, and love, each somehow built up in us by the fact that Jesus left – that he ascended to the Father.
But while the Ascension is the culmination of Jesus’ work on earth, it is not the end of the drama of salvation! For he promised that, though he was leaving his apostles, he was not leaving them comfortless.
He would send the Comforter, the Councilor, the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth who testifies to the Son and to the Father. We will speak more on that later – come to Sunday School the next two weeks!
Jesus’ Ascension increases our faith, uplifts our hope, and directs our love. Let us briefly consider what the Ascension shows us about our mission.
In Matthew’s Gospel, it is immediately before his Ascension that Jesus gives the Great Commission. “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel, baptizing in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).
In John 15, immediately before the passage we read this morning, Jesus teaches us that because we share in his mission, the world will hate us in the same way it hated him. “They will do all this to you on my account, because they do not know him who sent me.”
Brothers and sisters, in baptism each of us is called into God’s family, called to be sons and daughters of God, united to Jesus in his death and resurrection. Our brother Jesus was sent from the Father, and we too have a mission. To show the world the Love of God. The Holy Spirit of Truth moves in the Church and bears witness to Jesus Christ, and we too bear witness, as the Apostles who were with Jesus from the beginning bore witness.
We bear witness to the fact that God’s plan for humanity is far exceeds the horizons of our daily worries and struggles. I is the simple bliss of knowing and worshipping the One who made us, and knowing each other transfigured and glorified in the light of that presence. Christ the Lord has ascended into heaven. Come, let us adore him in the signs he has given us on the way.