Spring 2011

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]

1. Cf. Charles Péguy, The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, trans. Julian Green (New York: Pantheon Books, 1950), 52–55.

2. Cf. R. Guardini, Das Christusbild der paulinischen und johanneischen Schriften (Mainz: Matthias-Grünewald-Verlag, 1987).

3. Cf. J. G. Davies, He Ascended Into Heaven: A Study in the History of Doctrine (London: Lutterworth Press, 1958), 170.

4. Cf. ibid., chapter 2. The mystery appears in the gospel of John, when Jesus responds to Mary Magdalene, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. . . . I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God. . .” (Jn 20:17). The conclusion of Mark recounts the event as well (Mk 16:19), emphasizing the fact that the one who has ascended continues to be present and active in the preaching of his disciples. In Eph 4:8–10, we are given an exegesis of Psalm 68, which likewise refers to the mystery of the Ascension: “He ascended on high . . . he gave gifts to men . . . .” Saint Paul, interpreting this passage, continues, “What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended into the lower (regions) of the earth? The one who descended is also the one who ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.” The confession of faith in 1 Tim 3:16 also highlights the importance of the exaltation of Jesus, in the context of the proclamation of the Gospel and of its reception in faith: “proclaimed to the Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory.” The Letter to the Hebrews, too, contains a theology of the Ascension: the high priest has passed through the heavens (cf. Hb 4:14) in order to offer there his definitive sacrifice, through the tent of his glorified body (cf. Hb 9:27): confidence in so magnificent an intercession makes it possible for Christians to be firm in their faith.

5. For a bibliography of sources that discuss these passages, see F. Bovon, Luke the Theologian: Fifty-Five Years of Research (1950–2005) (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2006), 192–203.

6. Cf. H. Schlier, “Jesu Himmelfahrt nach den lukanischen Schriften,” in Besinnung auf das Neue Testament (Freiburg, 1964), 227–41.