Sunday, May 20, 2012

Why did Christ ascend into heaven? Would it have been better if he had remained on earth?

And when he had said these things, while they looked on, he was raised up: and a cloud received him out of their sight. (Acts of the Apostles 1:9)
For forty days after his Resurrection, Christ remained with the Apostles showing himself by many proofs truly to have been raised from the dead. However, after these days were fulfilled, our Savior withdrew his physical presence from his disciples and ascended into heaven.
While we know that the good Jesus has done all things rightly, we may nevertheless ask whether it may not have been better for him to remain on earth. Why did the Lord ascend into heaven? While it is clearly better for him, it does not at first seem to be beneficial for us.

Christ ascended for himself and his glory
It is fairly easy to see that it is greater for Christ that he ascend to heaven rather than remain on earth. After the Resurrection, our Savior’s body is no longer subject to corruption, but the world we live in is yet a place of generation and corruption. Christ’s body was glorified, but the world is not yet glorified.
Therefore, it is fitting on Christ’s part that he ascend to heaven which is a place of incorruption. Further, heaven is the place of perfect glory, and is the fitting place for the glorified body of our Lord.
Indeed, the real question – in relation to Christ considered in himself – is not “Why did he ascend to heaven?”, but rather “Why didn’t he ascend sooner?”
We answer that our Lord desired to remain on the earth for forty days so as to clearly manifest the truth of his Resurrection. And, indeed, he received great glory through remaining for this time on earth, since he inspired faith in the hearts of his disciples.
Christ ascended for our benefit
However, our Lord did not ascend only for his own benefit, but also for that of his disciples. Surely, the primary reason for the Ascension is that it is befitting to the glory of God and of his Christ, but it is also of great aid to us who remain. Indeed, we must hold that it was better for us that Christ withdraw his bodily presence from us.
Our Savior ascended into heaven to increase our faith, hope, and charity.
Our faith, which is of things unseen, is increased, since now we no longer see him with our eyes but yet believe. If, on the contrary, our Lord had remained on earth, we would not have as much room for faith – since we would see him clearly.
Further, we add that, had Jesus remained on earth to live constantly with his disciples, we would be tempted to think that his Resurrection had restored him only to natural earthly life rather than to a new life of glory. It was for this reason that our Savior spoke to Mary Magdalene, Do not touch me, for I am not yet ascended to my Father. (John 20:17)
Again, our hope is uplifted. For, by ascending to heaven, Christ places his human nature into glory and thereby opens the way for all men. Thus, as our hearts and minds are raised to behold Jesus’ humanity glorified in heaven, we hope that we to may attain to that same place of beatitude.
Further, the fervor of our charity is directed to heavenly things. Thus St. Paul wrote, Seek the things that are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth. (Colossians 3:1-2)
Finally, we must stress that – even if our Lord is no longer present among us in his proper bodily species, as he was during the time before the Ascension – neither as he abandoned us. For, firstly, he is present to us in his divinity. And, secondly, he is present always through the sacraments, and especially through the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.
Could the Holy Spirit have come before the Ascension?
But because I have spoken these things to you, sorrow hath filled your heart. But I tell you the truth: it is expedient to you that I go: for if I go not, the Paraclete will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:6-7)
Most certainly, the Holy Spirit could have been sent before the Ascension – for whatever the Son can do, so to can the Holy Spirit (and the Son came to earth before the Ascension). Further, the Holy Spirit did in fact descend before the Ascension, since he visibly came down upon the humanity of Christ at the Baptism.
However, it was more fitting that the Holy Spirit’s descent upon Mary and the Apostles should be delayed until after the Ascension, since this made it clear that the Holy Spirit was sent by the Son together with the Father and even through the causality of the Sacred Humanity of our Savior.
Thus, again, it is both for the glory of the Son and for the benefit of man that the descent of the Holy Spirit came after the Ascension.

Come Holy Spirit fill the hearts of thy faithful, and enkindle within them the fire of thy love!


Wild Bill said...

Father, could you enlarge upon the "noli me tangere" passage, please? I don't see how it follows from the temptation to believe that Jesus had risen to a restored natural life only - a notion from which he could easily disabuse us, especially today after 2000 years. I just think there has to be something more.

Grace said...

I still don't understand why Christ told Mary Magdalene not to touch him. Can you elaborate on that, please?

Howard said...

I suspect the Ascension was in part to direct us to the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

Anonymous said...

FR. Erlenbush,
could you elaborate on "...even through the causality of the Sacred Humanity of our Savior."

Thank you..

Clinton R. said...


I am on the RCIA teaching team at my parish. The handbook for the readings we received has commentary on each Sundays's readings from a priest. For the Gospel on the Ascension, he says Jesus did not actually ascend up into Heaven, as Heaven is not above us, but He went into another dimension. Is this sound Catholic teaching? I have never heard of Heaven described as a different dimension.

Brother Juniper said...

My thought is that the only way for us to get to heaven is for Christ to come down here and take us up with him. When we die, we step out of time and join ourselves to Christ. Then he takes the saved to heaven with him when he ascends. It does not matter when you die (it is past, present, or future to us - but all times are the same to God), you ascend with Christ.

Michelangelo said...

Dear Father,

Thank you for an excellent post! The relationship of the Ascension of the Lord and the Descent of the Holy Spirit is so important for our meditation, and reaps abundant fruit in our Christian life. On a related subject, the other day while praying the rosary, I thought that when Our Lord descended into hell to the Souls of the Just, He went to them as they were, without His glorified Body, and then, at the Ascension, they followed Him into Heaven in a great procession; Our Lord in His Glorified Body, the Holy Souls still without their glorified bodies, which we will all receive, by the mercy of God, at the Last Judgment. Does that sound right? Thank you Father, Happy St. Christopher Mag Day!

Deacon Bill Gallerizzo said...

The differentiation of tasks among the Three Persons of the Trinity are clearly defined in the Ascension. As the Son came to relate and define the Father's will for us, so the Holy Spirit came to bring us counsel and understanding. Had Christ remained on Earth, although as equal persons in One God it could be possible, the confusion of Persons in God we would have would be exacerbated through a failure to identify the distinctness of roles and identity between them. As God know us better than we know ourselves, many here are still confused over the Trinity, the confusion seems to emanate within those who do not recognize the Son as the Son, even among those who bear His name in their chosen religious identity. In that failure to recognize the Trinity, they also fail to distinguish the ascension as essentially ascension to the Father; they attribtute it to a wandering away, a virtual vanishing, rather than a true ascension and removal from physical frame of reference, leaving the true presence in the Eucharist as the visual presence. In God, all things are possible, but we cannot understand what the Son teaches us about the Father without the counsel of the Holy Spirit. To paraphrase St. Paul, we receive no revelation by means of our own efforts, presumptions, or suppositions. Everything God does has distinct purpose and is never serendipitous.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Yes, you make a very good point. Many of the Fathers say that Christ remains present with his Church through the Sacraments ... and the Eucharist most of all!

Peace! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Wild Bill and Grace,
The whole discussion with Mary Magdalene at the tomb is open to much interpretation ... please let me just say a word here ...

What happened to the Apostles at the Ascension and Pentecost, occurred for Mary Magdalene at the death and Resurrection.
It was through the loss of the Lord's physical presence in the Ascension and the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost that the Apostles were brought to the state of perfection -- this was there "dark night of the soul".
BUT for Mary Magdalene, this occurred at Jesus' death and Resurrection -- and St John of the Cross states this explicitly in "Dark Night".

So, this is part of what is happening when Jesus says to her: "Do not touch me" ... she is already undergoing something of an "Ascension experience" on the morning of the Resurrection.

Hope that helps a little bit ... much more could be said, of course! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Clinton R.,
Well, Jesus most certainly did go "up out of their sight" ... but it is true that heaven is not "up there" or "out there" in the stars.
Indeed, heaven CANNOT be part of this universe (because our universe is subject to change).

Sometimes people articulate this in a way that is a bit confusing and also somewhat dismissive of the piety of the people (and I think that is a shame).

I did write about this in a couple articles, if you are interested:

Peace! +

Clinton R. said...

Thank you, Father. Peace and blessings to you. +JMJ+

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