The Ascension of Jesus refers to his departure from the material universe back to the world of the divine, after he had done all that was possible to fit and train his followers to carry on his work of saving mankind.
It was therefore the transfer of his risen and glorious body to heaven. It implied both his corporeal survival over so many risks that he had met in his human situation and his final glorification after the work so well done.
The celebration of this feast or its liturgy teaches us the following lessons: first and foremost that Jesus is no longer earth bound. His ascension however, does not mean that he is absent, or that he has gone away from his people.
Secondly, the liturgy of ascension emphasizes the fact that after the resurrection of Jesus the Church began a long missionary journey of reaching out to the ends of the world in the company of its Master who is no longer visibly present, but working through the Holy Spirit.
Thirdly, the feast reminds us that the Christian vision of the world is not limited by the boundaries of this life on earth.
The ascension of Jesus which followed his resurrection gave a happy ending to the tragic story of his death on the cross. It made the ‘eleven’ adore their Lord the more.
But being human beings, they still had some doubts which were so obvious to Jesus himself that he could not risk leaving his church in their own hands without the supervision of the Holy Spirit.
The disciples as a doubting community shed some light on every Christian community throughout the history of the Church. When it comes to the ascension of Jesus Christ, every community of Christians has its own doubts and fears.
It is in the above line that we too may be having our own doubts, questions and fears as we reflect on the feast of ascension and its relevance to us today.
We may possibly ask our selves the following questions or similar ones: Did Jesus really rise up into heaven?
Is Paradise high up? Where did Jesus stay during the forty days between his resurrection and ascension? What about the promise he made to the good thief on the cross, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise?’
Many people would rightly advise us to refer ourselves to the Bible for the answers to our questions. It is interesting however to note how different biblical texts treat this theme with lots of precautions.
Some biblical texts do affirm the exaltation of Jesus into heaven, specifically to the right hand of the Father, but do not mention the ascension. Rom. 8: 34. Other texts mention the ascension as a purely theological fact: He ascended far above the heavens that he might fill all things.
Eph. 4:10 The term “theological fact” here points to the way such texts affirm the transfer of Christ to heaven as a dogmatic fact, but do not define it as an historical fact in the sense that they fix the time and place of the event.
In particular, Eph 4:10 implies an ascension which some theologians call ascension of cosmic dimensions.”
This is because such a passage affirms the physical reality of the heavenly triumph of Christ as a necessary phenomenon, without paying attention to the details of the place and time when such an event took place. In some other texts, the ascension is presented as an established historical fact observed by sensible experience.
Such a text appears in Lk 24:50 ff. Even there, it must be noted that the event is described with restraint; actually only the departure is observed.
A cross study of the different texts also exhibits an apparent contradiction between the two views; that ascension took place 40 days after the resurrection and another view that it happened immediately after the resurrection.
There is however a theological explanation that removes any real contradiction between the two views. The essence of the mystery of the ascension is the phenomenon of his departure.
It is surely beyond the usual human survey or observation, to locate the physical presence of Jesus after his resurrection. He could surely be anywhere.
Jesus himself emphasized this fact: “All power is given to me in heaven and on earth.” Mt 28:18. Apart from the above details of the event of ascension, its importance and relevance to the Church has been so great.
Jesus solemnly declares that by his death-resurrection he has been given, by the Father, total power over the universe.
He is, therefore, in a position to launch a universal mission, and he duly commissions his representatives who are to achieve his task.
That was the impetus of the mission of the Church and it continues to the present day. As for our times, one becomes a disciple through baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit.
To the present day, the power of the risen and ascended Christ is at work in his Church. Through the Holy Spirit and through his own followers, he continues to act and teach until the ends of the earth.
As his witness today, we are the nucleus of his Church of sacraments which is the continuation of his presence and power. We no longer experience Jesus in our midst in the same way as before when he used to walk and talk with his disciples during his earthly ministry.
He is no longer earthbound; yet, while sharing in the glory of his Father, he continues to guide and direct his community through the Holy Spirit. We are still tracing the foot prints of his disciples who received a promise and a mission.
The same Jesus, now in the glorious presence of his Father, will continue to be with us through the Spirit – a power enabling us to become Christ’s “witness.” Through us the message would reach out in ever-widening circles.
It is important to be clear that this solemn commission, so theologically important, is not historically a command of Jesus to his church only at its beginning shortly before his ascension. This commission continues to be directed at you and me.
Jesus continues to tell us that all the preparations have been done and the ball is now in our court.