The Ascension of the Lord: Acts 1:1-11, Ephesians 1:17-23, Matthew 28:16-20.
What an incredible feast we celebrate today. It marks the end of the physical presence of Christ in the world (in this age, at least) as well as the divine mystery of the Trinity that God will unfold in a new and expanded way for us at Pentecost. For Christ tells us that He is always with us, despite the fact that His body ascends to heaven. What do we make of this paradox? How can He be “with us” while clearly He ascends out of this world? Is this just a cute phrase meaning “the memory of me will be with you”? No, definitively not, as Pentecost and the sacraments attest. Christ’s ascension is a necessary element of salvation history and the glorification of God; the ascension enables a new reality for the Church to operate “in Spirit and Truth.”
As we contemplate today’s readings, we’ll see that this new reality is a place where God has been yearning to meet us since Adam and Eve left the garden — perhaps a spiritual plane as much as a place, it can be examined through the concept of glorification.
But let’s start with the Ascension and what we learn from the Acts of the Apostles. What’s odd about the Ascension is that it can almost be lost in the liturgical year, coming just a week before Pentecost, within the Easter Season. This may deceive us into thinking that it’s somehow not as important or at least less important than the Resurrection or Pentecost. Yet as we examine it, we find that it’s not only psychologically impactful for the Apostolic Church but also essential to usher in a new spiritual reality for the Church, a reality that persists until the Final Judgement. Its importance is signaled by the time frame; the author of Acts tells us that “he presented himself alive to them by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” Forty days marks spiritual preparation and purification, often before a new mission or calling. Notably, Jesus spends forty days in the desert just after being baptized by John and prior to starting His earthly mission. And here we are told that Jesus spends forty days with His apostles between His Resurrection and His Ascension. Luke and John tell us that He uses this time to explain how the Easter events fulfill scriptural prophecies as well as the meaning of many of His teachings that they were unable to comprehend before His Passion and Death. In other words, Jesus delivers the first full catechism to his Apostolic Church, the amazing Christology that defines the Church to this day.
So the purification of the Church during these 40 days exists in the physical presence of the risen Lord and His fully revealed teachings. And if the 40 days are also a preparation for a new mission and reality, what are they preparing for? Jesus explains that they’ve been preparing to be baptized in the Holy Spirit: “the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak; for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” As we know, this comes at Pentecost, and, indeed, the Spirit comes with an intensity and impact that is totally surprising.
But why must Christ ascend? The answer comes in the question His apostles ask just before He ascends: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” With this question, they show that they have not yet seen the mystical connection that Christ serves as a “gate” for humanity (the Way) and they still see him as a Messiah who will accomplish all things physically Himself. Now, none of those things are technically wrong — Christ is the Messiah, and it is through His unique entrance into history that Israel is restored and the world is saved, and He will return physically at the end of time for the Final Judgement. But they’re missing the point that Christ came to establish a new relationship with God for humanity. They’re missing the point that the Church needs to exist as a way to draw people to God precisely through the spiritual presence of Christ within them, not the physical presence of Christ by Himself. Christ is the gate and the Way because He is the nexus where divinity and humanity were joined, sins were sacrificed, and a new relationship with God was made possible (we’ll call this glorification below). But He doesn’t come to simply take over and do everything for us. He comes with an invitation for us to go through Him to the Father; we must use our free will and our actions in this life to unite ourselves with God; we must do some work, too. (As a side note, I think this is a better way to think about salvation through faith and works: our “work” is not community service but the work of living out God’s commandments, the work of bringing God’s will to the world through our own actions.)
This is why Jesus’s answer to His apostles is: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” These are His last words as He exists bodily on the earth, before “a cloud took him from their sight.” Note that in His final words, He is giving them their Apostolic mission. They will receive power, they will be His witnesses to the ends of the earth. This is why He must ascend: so that the apostles no longer look to Him as a physical person to do this work. They must be imbued with the Spirit of God to exist with the mystical reality of the Trinity because God’s plan is that we are no longer called slaves, but friends. God wants theosis, divinization, for all of us. This requires faith, in which we are blessed if we “have not seen and yet have come to believe,” as Christ explains to St. Thomas. Christ provides salvation to us through the Cross and Resurrection, but that salvation takes on the specific characteristic of being a Way to our own divinization. That Way is one where He is not seen, where we must forge a relationship with God and see Him in the world through each other and the rest of creation.
The angels (“two men dressed in white garments”) accentuate this point when they say, “why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.” In other words, the promise of the Final Judgement still stands, and Christ will once again be present on earth in bodily form, but we are not to just look at the sky as we await that moment. We have work to do. Our baptism in the Holy Spirit has given us a share in the divinity of Christ, and our job on earth is to get to know our wonderful, infinitely perfect and mysterious God, bringing Him and His will to this world.
This lens helps us better hear what St. Paul tells the Ephesians in the second reading:
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.
Note how St. Paul is praying for the gifts of the Spirit to come to this fledgling part of the Church: wisdom, revelation, enlightenment, and faith. They will need faith and spiritual gifts to truly become the Body of Christ. Paul knows that the purpose of the Church is to share in the great power that the Father gave to Jesus:
God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Paul tells us here that the Church is “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” What an amazing destiny for us! Do we all comprehend that this has been entrusted to us? That our work in the world as Christians is not just being a good person and being nice to others, but to participate in the mystical relationship of love that is the Trinity, to bring God to the world and in the process be deified ourselves as we strive for perfection according to the Way of Christ? WOW! That’s a seriously awesome charge.
Let’s reflect for a moment on this concept of divinization, deification, or theosis, as the Eastern Churches call it. It’s not something that a paragraph or two in a blog post can do justice to, but let’s dip our toes into this deep water. Divinization is not the belief that we become gods in some sort of pagan pantheism. Divinization instead refers to the spiritual state of being united with God to such an extent that we are able to share in the holiness that characterizes God. The metaphor often used is that of a piece of metal thrust into a fire: it becomes hot, it glows, and it is malleable, taking on aspects the fire imbues upon it, but it is still metal. This is the true goal for all Christians on the earth: not just to “be good” like Christ, but to unite our human nature with the divine nature like Christ.
As you might imagine, the thought of divinization made theologians and churchmen in the Western Church somewhat uncomfortable over the centuries. Part of this is because of the fear that people would seek to be treated like gods (like the Roman caesar, who claimed to be a god). The word for this in Greek is apotheosis, not to be confused with theosis.
I think there is another, related concept to help us avoid this pitfall: glorification. We must constantly refer back to Jesus, the perfect union of the human and the divine. Jesus, despite His divinity, always pointed back to the Father and credited the Father for everything. He tells the Pharisees, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me” (John 8:54). Here is an important lesson about divinization: we must not seek glory for ourselves like secular heroes (what Aquinas calls vainglory), but instead remember that all glory belongs to and is bestowed by God.
So if glory is more than just fame or renown, what is it? St. Augustine calls glory clara notitia cum laude, or “brilliant celebrity with praise.” Augustine gives us the second part of the equation “with praise” to signal that we’re talking about how we humans interact with divine glory. A first step in glorifying God is praising the wonders of His creation, which are a partial reflection of his abundance, goodness, and perfection. But truly glorifying God must go beyond this. Here an excerpt from the Catholic Encyclopedia is particularly helpful:
This praise involves not merely intellectual perception, but also the practical acknowledgment by heart and will which issues in obedience and loving service. The endowment of intelligence with all that it implies — spirituality and free-will — renders man a higher and nobler image of the Creator than is any other being of this visible world. The gift of intellect also imposes on man the duty of returning to God that formal glory of which we have just spoken. The more perfectly he discharges this obligation, the more does he develop and perfect that initial resemblance to God which exists in his soul, and by the fulfillment of this duty serves the end for which he, like all else, has been created. (“Glory” by Fr. James Fox, 1909)
In other words, our intellect, spirituality, and free will enable us to glorify God in a much deeper way than the existence of creation being a testament to His awesomeness. The final sentence in this excerpt is worth examination. We can read “the more perfectly he discharges this obligation [of returning glory to God]” to mean the “goal of the Christian life.” And the object of that sentence is the divinization bit: “the more does he develop and perfect that initial resemblance to God which exists in his soul.” Thus we see how divinization and glorifying God are related: our whole-hearted glorification of God in our praise and loving work is what brings about our divinization. Like Christ, who glorified God in the most unimaginable loving gift of Himself on the Cross, we are called to glorify God and that is the Way to divinization.
With this connection in mind, some of Jesus’s words come into sharp focus. As He says in His final prayer for the Apostles before His betrayal in the garden:
Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed (John 17:1b-5).
Jesus’s prayer reveals how glory is a gift that marks divinity, that the Persons of the Trinity give glory to one another in order to better reveal the essence of divinity to humanity. Jesus asks the Father to glorify Him in order that Jesus may glorify the Father in return (through the Easter events). Why do they do this? As Jesus said, this instills in humanity the knowledge of the “only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
Thanks to the events of Ascension and the coming Pentecost, we can understand this not as book knowledge but rather experiential knowledge. Jesus tells us that eternal life is “that they may know you.” The kingdom, the reign, of God is living in the reality of glorification. It is a constant, ever-gifting of glory among the Trinity that we get to participate in! Our praise of God: glorification. Our works of love: glorification. Our faith in the unseen yet perpetually active God: glorification. (The priest exhorts us at the close of the Mass: “Glorify the Lord with your life!”) With a constant focus on the glorification of God, just like Jesus in His ministry, we can live our lives with the realistic goal of divinization. This is a new reality that Jesus and the Holy Spirit bring about in the world. As St. Peter writes, “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you” (1 Pt 4:14). In other words, if our constant glorification of God through our works and words that spread the Gospel of Christ invite ridicule or suffering, our hearts can be glad in the knowledge of being blessed by the Spirit of Glory. And here we see why the Church Fathers insisted that the primary actor in divinization is the Holy Spirit. Since glory comes from God, it is the Spirit that glorifies the Father through us. Likewise, if any share of glorification comes to us, it is also through the Spirit.
And so we can bring this reflection to a close, hopefully better understanding why Jesus ascends to the Father. It is only in this way that our primary relationship with God is through the Holy Spirit and the sacraments Jesus institutes. The Holy Spirit is the author of our divinization. The Holy Spirit makes our glorification of God real and not just lip service, by stirring our hearts and uniting the divine soul within us with its Creator. Jesus tells his apostles in today’s gospel reading, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The more we reflect upon the mysteries of our faith, the more we see the undeniable and essential logic of the Trinity: that each Person is required for God’s mysterious saving plan for humanity. When Jesus says, “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age,” we have the Father’s glorification of His Son as proof of this eternal existence, and we can expectantly await Pentecost, when we celebrate the sending of His Spirit to be with us until the end of time.