Bertrand Russell, perhaps the most famously atheist man of the 20th century, was asked on his deathbed what he would say to God if he met Him when he died. Russell said, “Sir, why did you take such pains to hide yourself?” Among the many objections to the Christian Faith, and to revealed religion in general, is this: that God does not make Himself evident enough. It is an understandable difficulty – if God is so good and wants people to know Him, why does He not make Himself more openly available? Clearly, the Ascension invites this question, especially when combined with the limited appearances of the risen Christ… He appeared to the Apostles, some other close disciples, and a nondescript large group in Jerusalem. Why not to as many as possible? The Romans? The Greeks? The Native Americans? (Thus the attractiveness of the Mormon doctrine that Jesus visited the Americas.)
We can start to answer this question with another question: should Jesus have jumped off the parapet of the Temple, as the Devil had suggested? Assuredly not, simply because He did not. While Jesus responds by rejecting the proposition because it would “test” God, we ought to be struck by the fact that it was not part of God’s design that the Christ would do such open miracles as flying around for all to see. Instead, the miracles of Jesus are, for the most part, quite obscure and hidden. There is chaos in the multiplication of the loaves, there is darkness and rain in the storm when He walks on the sea, the healings and resuscitations are done “inside” the body, etc. That’s why a depiction of Jesus like this might seem a little bit “off”:
When Jesus does fly, it is in front of a small group of hand-picked men, it is not to prove His power, and it is only done for a moment before He disappears into the clouds. Why did He not do a flyover of all of Israel, or even beyond?
Most of all – why did He not just stick around? Surely, the sight of a 2,000-year-old Jesus would be a definitive sign of His power for any sane person. He could continue His public ministry, and we could have a world leader with a perfect vision of human flourishing. It would have been easier especially for the Jews, who were basically expecting this kind of “worldly” Messiah anyway.
Let’s start with Christ’s own explanation for His departure: so that the Holy Spirit can be sent. Why is the sending of the Spirit contingent on Christ’s departure? One answer that comes to mind is that it would have been confusing to have such a dynamic… Why the need for the Spirit when Christ is physically here among us? If He remained, it would have been tempting to ignore the action of the Holy Spirit which moves us towards the spiritual union with Christ, that union which is called charity… People would have insisted on seeing Christ “in person,” since He would not be omnipresent the way He is now thanks to the sending of the Spirit Who teaches us to pray, as Paul says.
This leads us to the second reason for the Ascension, which is given by St. John of the Cross – the disciples’ relationship with Jesus was too sense-based and needed to be spiritualized. “Stop holding on to me,” as He told the Magdalene, “for I have not yet ascended to My Father.” (John 20:17) The relationship with the risen Christ is going to be of a different kind: one in the Spirit. Prayer and the Sacraments make much less sense if the physical Christ remains among us – they would seem like cheap imitations of a physical encounter or a direct word to or from Christ in the flesh. The Eucharist would be especially confusing… How is it that Christ is here and is consumed, but also physically over there, where He can be directly seen? His continued physical presence would prove to be a great obstacle to the appreciation of this mystical union.
Third, the popular hope of a worldly Messiah is destroyed by the Ascension. No doubt, after the Resurrection, the Apostles were still wondering when they would start a war with Rome and bring peace to the land of Israel. Jesus had been demonstrating during His public life that this was not the plan, but the misguided hope yet lingered. For the idea of a worldly Messiah to go away, the Messiah had to go away. Christ shows us Who He is and what He is really about when He goes back to Heaven – the King of the Heavenly Jerusalem.
Another reason presents itself immediately, which Sheen offered, namely, that in order for a man to become truly great he must die. Only after the completion of one’s life can people make a judgment about how well that life was lived. As Qoheleth says, “There is no embalming like a good name left behind; man’s true birthday is the day of his death.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2) Of course, Christ does not die at the Ascension, but His public life “dies,” which suffices. Nobody is waiting for Him to make a mistake, like the Pharisees used to do.
Fifth, in the Ascension, Christ transfers responsibility onto the Apostles, and by extension, onto the whole Church, for the task of making disciples. He does this in word and in deed: in word by commanding the Apostles to preach and to baptize (the “Great Commission”), and in deed by removing His bodily presence so that nobody could defer responsibility to Christ directly in these matters. With this enormous duty comes an enormous privilege and joy: to participate in the life of God insofar as He governs, teaches, and sanctifies His people.
Next, given that Christ is “one step removed” from the normal exterior functioning of the Church, it takes a purer kind of assent to enter into the Church’s life. One must have a more resolute determination to trust in God if God is using secondary causes to do His work. In other words, the added difficulty of Christian faith presented by Christ’s physical absence – especially given the circumstances of the Resurrection appearances – redounds to our merit for believing. The low-bar is set higher, as it were, giving those who make the “leap” the winners of a greater prize than what it might have been otherwise, and those who don’t will be the recipients of milder punishments. (Why the bar is set specifically there and not at another height seems unanswerable except by an appeal to God’s wisdom.)
Finally, Christ’s Ascension points us towards our own final destiny – dwelling in the presence of the Godhead – and makes us hope for it. Unless He returns very soon, we too will die, rise, and hopefully appear before a Friend rather than a Judge, and then be brought into Heaven. Where Christ physically went, He brought our human nature with Him in His own, and so this is also a sign of our present status as ones who also currently dwell with God, albeit in a dimmer way. Furthermore, the thought of Christ’s return is particularly important in helping us to acknowledge that we are waiting for His help – resurrection and judgment are not mere promises of a King on Earth, they are promises of a Savior Who resides in the very place to which we aspire, where He is preparing a place for us with Him.
Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments below! Happy Ascension Thursday Sunday.
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