The Ascension and Pentecost

The First Fruits of the Flesh and the First Fruits of the Spirit: the Mystery of the Ascension

José Granados

“The Ascension is another step forward in the deepening bond of the flesh of Christ with the Church, and, through her, with the entire cosmos: ‘He ascended . . . that he might fill all things’ (Eph 4:10).”

In the fourth century AD, a wealthy Roman patroness named Poemenia had a church built on the Mount of Olives, the place of Christ’s Ascension. The sanctuary had an open dome so that the faithful might contemplate the heavens during the liturgical celebration. At other sites of the Holy Land, pilgrims sought to follow in the footsteps of Jesus; here, they turned their gaze upward toward that part of the heavens where, according to Luke’s account, the Master departed at his Ascension. This separation from Jesus, as well as the “envious cloud” that took him from our sight, in the words of Friar Luis de León, permit a nostalgic reading of this mystery. The Augustinian dedicated a poem to the Ascension that expresses a reproach at Jesus’ departure: “And You, holy Shepherd, leave / Your flock in this valley, deep and dark / in loneliness and sorrow, / tearing asunder the pure air / You depart for realms immortal, safe and sure?” The poem continues, lamenting the misfortune of those deprived of their Master, those who, poor and sorrowful, do not know where to turn. Péguy expresses the same sentiment in his Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc. The churches of Christendom, with their great temples and renowned patrons, could never measure up to the peoples and places who were present at the very steps of Jesus, who could invoke him and even touch the hem of his garment:

To that parish was given what never was given to you, parishes of France, what never in all eternity will be given to any other parish. . . . Happy is she who poured on his feet the ointment of the amphora, she who poured on his head the ointment of the alabaster box . . . on his feet, on his very feet, on his body of flesh, on his very head, on the head of his body . . . . All saints, men and women, contemplate Jesus seated at the right of the Father. And there he has, in heaven he has his man’s body, his human body in a state of glory, since he went up to heaven, as he was, on Ascension Day. But you, you alone, you saw, you touched, you grasped that human body in its humanity, in your common humanity, walking and seated on our common earth. [1]

And yet the gospels that testify to Christ’s departure do not allow for a purely nostalgic reading of the Ascension. Luke, for example, highlights the joy with which the disciples return to Jerusalem, a great joy that evokes, and thus brings to completion, the birth of the Messiah (cf. Lk 2:10 and 24:52). This is the joy of those who have encountered the faith (cf. Acts 8:8 and 15:3), effectively anticipating that full joy of the Spirit, of whom Jesus speaks to his disciples at the Last Supper (Jn 16:24 and 17:13). The disciples did not understand the Ascension, then, as a loss; rather, they were to be given a new abundance. Jesus himself had assured them, “It is better for you that I go” (Jn 16:7). It is significant that, of all of the mysteries of the life of Jesus, the Ascension is closest to us; it is the point of departure for faith in Christ and for contemplating his person and work. Among the New Testament writings, as Romano Guardini has noted, Paul’s letters are in fact the most accessible to the believer, in spite of their apparent complexity. Only with Paul’s teachings as the necessary background can the believer then approach the synoptics without fear of misinterpreting them. [2] As paradoxical as it seems, this fact has a profound meaning: Paul’s experience is the most similar to our own. He neither saw nor touched Jesus, as others had done during his earthly life; rather, he knows him through the light of faith and the power of the Spirit. While Mary Magdalene wanted to cling to the resurrected Christ (cf. Jn 20:17) so that she might continue to relate to him in a way that was familiar, Paul says, “even if we once knew Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know him so no longer” (2 Cor 5:16). It is no wonder that St. Augustine viewed the feast of the Ascension as the crown of the liturgical year. [3]

The very font of Christian life emerges here, in this distinct mode of Jesus’ presence, which is inaugurated on the Mount of Olives. At the Ascension, the believer is given the cardinal directions for his life with Christ; the structure of the sacramental economy and of the meaning and mission of the Church; and the new character of the Christian era, in which the final age has begun. How are we to understand this simultaneity of presence and absence to which the Ascension bears testimony? In order to explore the response to this question, let us begin with a study of Luke’s narrative.

1. The account of the Ascension

Saint Luke is not the only author who tells us of Christ’s ascent into Heaven. The fact is attested to in one form or another throughout the entirety of the New Testament. [4] It is part of the first kerygmatic narratives that set out the life of Jesus and it enters later into the Creed. Nevertheless, it is the third evangelist who narrates the event in the most detail and gives it a decisive importance in his work’s composition. [5] The scene unfolds in view of Jerusalem, which was Jesus’ destination and the point of origin for the Church’s mission. For this reason, Luke could both close his gospel with this event, and then recount it again as a kind of overture for Acts. The Ascension is a mystery that, like the god Janus, looks both backward and forward. 

First, the mystery extends into the past, bringing Christ’s journey to its conclusion. Luke presents the scene as the end of a long inclusion, which begins with the infancy narratives. [6] Here again, Luke speaks of that “great joy” that first characterizes the Annunciation (cf. Lk 2:10 and 24:52). Everything is situated close to the Temple, where the disciples return to pray, and where the story of Zechariah took place, with which Luke begins his gospel. We are told, moreover, of the final blessing given by Jesus, which the Baptist’s father had been unable to bestow upon the people because of his lack of faith.

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