By Fr Joseph Francis –
How to understand “descending” from heaven and “ascending” into heaven?
Descended from heaven or ascended into heaven: these expressions need to be understood properly. They should not be taken literally as if God were descending and ascending. A question that should always be kept in mind here is: where is God? The Catholic’s answer to this question should be clear and resounding. God is everywhere and if this were true what is the point of descending from heaven or ascending into heaven?
That it is a metaphor is sure but what is its meaning? There must be a purpose in using these expressions and what is the significance of this “ascension” we reflect on briefly. For forty days after his resurrection he had appeared to his disciples on and off in many places under different circumstances. He kept coming and going. If he were to go on doing this, the disciples would get stuck to one place and not move out to announce the Gospel to all the peoples of this world. So that the disciples may come to know that Jesus is not going to be coming and going and they need not be expecting his appearance at any time and sit down and do nothing as indeed it happened. (Read the Gospel of John 21.3 ff.) Peter had become nervous waiting for Jesus’ next appearance and being fidgety tells his companions that he intends to go fishing to quieten his mind and relieve the time of waiting. He goes fishing and the other disciples also accompany him, a sign that they too were in tension waiting for the Lord to appear. They cannot demand his appearance; he chooses the time and place according to his good pleasure!
His purpose in appearing to the disciples to strengthen their faith in his resurrection had been achieved. He had gathered his scattered disciples: the disciples of Emmaus (Lk 24. 13-35), Thomas who had doubted and who had been absent (Jn 20. 24-29). He had strengthened their faith, he had shown the many disciples he had (I Cor 15. 6 says that they were more than 500) that indeed he is alive and that he is soon ascending to his Father (Cf. Jn 20.17 where Jesus tells Mary Magdalene : “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”).
The narration of ascension
Instead of simply disappearing as he had done frequently during the 40 days after Resurrection, the Acts of the Apostles in chapter 1 says that in front of them as they looked on he ascended, so that they might not be expecting him to appear soon. Meanwhile they have work to do which he had given and which they must go about doing after being empowered from on high by the Holy Spirit (Lk 24. 44-49). This is why the angels, that appeared as they kept looking skywards at the ascending and at the same time disappearing Jesus, say to them remonstrating with them: “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 1.11). So, they should not waste their time but do what Jesus told them and they did!
Has Jesus gone away from us? Is he absent?
A further question arises: has Jesus gone away from us? Are we worshipping an absentee Lord? Think of it this way: if Jesus were to be absent then what is the meaning of the real but sacramental presence of Jesus in the Eucharist? Or what happens to the Catholic faith that the Risen Lord is the power behind each of the Sacraments and through these visible signs we come into living contact with the invisible Lord? We also have the assurance of Jesus in Mathew 18.20 “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them”. Or as Jesus declares that the service done to the poor is done to him (Read Mt.25.40 “…Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me”). Therefore the Lord who is ascended is not gone away. He is still with us: only we cannot see him visibly now with these fleshly eyes but only with the eyes of faith. Every Christian must preserve such a lively faith in the living and ever present Lord and not relegate Jesus to the dusty pages of history!
To be continued next week…Into Heaven