“So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.”Mark 16:19
Here in the Gospel of Mark we hear a brief account of an essential event in Salvation History: the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven.
That said, even as someone who grew up Catholic I had no awareness or understanding of this event for much of my life. It wasn’t until I began studying the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church that I realized how significant and essential the moment Jesus ascended into Heaven is.
So what exactly do the Gospels record about this event and what significance does it have for our faith and salvation in Christ?
The Ascension of Jesus Christ in the Gospels
Though St. Mark mentions the Ascension of Jesus in his Gospel, it’s in the Gospel according to St. Luke and the Acts of the Apostles (both written by St. Luke the Physician, a companion of St. Paul) that we have the greatest details recounted about the event.
First, in Luke’s Gospel we read the following:
“Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God”.”Luke 24:50-53
And then, in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke gives us even more details:
“And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”Acts 1:9-11
In the full passage of the account in Acts, we are told that the time between Jesus’ Resurrection and his Ascension was 40 days (Acts 1:3). This is the reason why in the Catholic Church we celebrate the Ascension liturgically on the 40th day following Easter Sunday, traditionally referred to as Ascension Thursday.
The Significance of Jesus’ Ascension
So what significance does the Ascension of Jesus have in the life of the Church and in our lives today?
Well, based on the teaching in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I believe the Ascension of Jesus reveals three theological truths that all Catholics should know.
First, ever since the moment of Jesus’ Ascension, all of humanity now has the possibility of spending eternity in Heaven with God.
This means that prior to the ascension of Christ’s resurrected body into Heaven, no human being had the ability by their own accord to enter into God’s heavenly domain.
And this truth that Heaven only became accessible at the Ascension of Jesus can be difficult for many to grasp. So often we assume that Heaven is the natural destination for all those who die. But the truth is that Heaven is not a natural dwelling place for human beings.
Rather, God in His infinite love and mercy, revealed in Jesus Christ, has chosen to invite us to become partakers of His Divine Nature and thereby enable us to share in His Heavenly existence.
And this fully became a reality for humanity at the moment Jesus, the head of the Church, ascended into Heaven. As Jesus stated to Nicodemus during his public ministry and in the Gospel of John, “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man” (John 3:13).
Another way of saying this is that Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven is the archetype and pledge of our own future ascension into Heaven.
Second, Jesus’ Ascension is his entry into the sanctuary of Heaven as the one Priest of the new and eternal Covenant, where he continuously intercedes for us as the one mediator between God and man and assures us of the permanent outpouring of the Holy Spirit (CCC 667).
As the Jewish High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple at Jerusalem once per year to offer the sacrifice of atonement on behalf of the people, Jesus, in his Ascension, enters the Temple of Heaven in order to offer Himself perpetually to the Father as the eternal sacrifice of atonement for all humanity.
In the Letter to the Hebrew it states,
“For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the Holy Place yearly with blood not his own; for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.”Hebrews 9:24-26
It is because of this understanding of what Jesus is doing in His Ascension that we Catholics understand what is occurring at every Mass.
Contrary to what many think, when Catholics celebrate Mass we are not re-sacrificing Jesus nor are we merely reenacting the Last Supper. Rather, we believe that the event of the cross and resurrection are made present at every single Mass. Actually, we believe that the entire life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus is made present at every Mass.
And this is because the Ascension takes what was an event in history and brings it into eternity. In the Ascension, the wounded yet risen body of our Lord Jesus Christ is presented to God the Father as a living and perpetual offering.
And therefore, every time we celebrate Mass, we believe our earthly liturgy to be a mysterious participation in the heavenly liturgy. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states in its reflection on the Letter to the Hebrews: “[Christ] is the center and the principal actor of the liturgy that honors the Father in heaven” (CCC 662).
Third, the Ascension of Jesus into heaven is his ascension to the right hand of God the Father almighty, both signifying the inauguration of the Messiah’s kingdom spoken of by the repentant thief on the cross and fulfilling the prophet Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man:
“To him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”Daniel 7:14
This biblical expression “to sit at the right hand of God” refers to both the elevation of Jesus’ human nature over all the angels and his participation in the honor, glory, and judicial power of God.
This is why the Ascension of Jesus is understood to be the crowning conclusion of the work of redemption and an essential part of the Paschal Mystery. Therefore, without his ascension into Heaven, the work of redemption would be incomplete.
A Prayer for Ascension Thursday (or Sunday)
As mentioned above, Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven is usually celebrated liturgically by the Church on the 40th day following Easter Sunday due to his Ascension taking place in the Gospels on the 40th day after his resurrection. And if you take a look at a calendar, the 40th day after Easter always falls on a Thursday.
However, so as to encourage greater participation in the celebration of the Ascension, it isn’t uncommon for bishops to move the liturgical celebration of the Ascension from Thursday to the following Sunday.
And so, whether you’re celebrating the Ascension in your diocese on Thursday or Sunday, here’s a prayer for you to pray on this Holy Day:
Dear Lord Jesus Christ, right before your Ascension into heaven you told your apostles to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth upon receiving the Holy Spirit. May I be similarly inspired to spread your Gospel message in word and deed, according to your will for me. And may I do so prudently and joyfully, with your help, your guidance, and your grace! And remembering this glorious event, help me to seek what is above, Heaven, where you are seated at the right hand of God the Father! Amen.
Have any thoughts about the Ascension of Jesus?
Let me know below in the comment box!
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