The Feast of the Ascension is normally celebrated forty days after Easter – hence, Ascension Thursday. However, the celebration is sometimes moved to Sunday, and therefore this Sunday’s Gospel reading is Saint Luke’s rendition of the Ascension. We should consider the meaning of the Ascension. First, the Ascension fulfills a prediction of Jesus that he would “return to the Father” (Jn 16:28). The event reminds us of both the Transfiguration of Jesus, and of the account in the Book of Daniel where a “son of man” (Dn 7:13-14) approaches the Father with the clouds of heaven.
Second, the Ascension is, in a literal sense, the last miracle that Jesus performs in the presence of the Apostles. The event becomes the final sign of Jesus the man working with the power and authority of God among his followers. It is also the logical conclusion to his ministry. Jesus, the Son of God, have accomplished his mission on earth, returns to the place from which he came, the Kingdom of Heaven. In fact, the Ascension is an article of faith accepted by all Christians.
Third, the Resurrection and the Ascension are both important as they point to the divinity of Jesus. Jesus was not merely preacher or prophet: he operated with the authority granted to him by the Father. As Jesus himself said,
This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father.
Because the Resurrection and Ascension are signs of his divinity, Jesus reminds his followers “you are witnesses to these things.” The theology here echoes a major theme in John’s Gospel. We should believe in the Son of God not merely on the basis of blind faith, but because of the testimony of eyewitnesses to the mighty events manifested by Jesus.
Fourth, the Ascension of Christ also draws a line in the salvation of history. Revelation of God is in some sense “closed” with his Ascension, as the Gospels, or the accounts of his life become the authoritative basis of revelation for Christians. Beginning ten days after the Ascension with Pentecost Sunday, a new phase in the plan of salvation history begins – namely, the life of the Church on earth. Finally, although Jesus returns to heaven, he also sends the Church the Advocate – the Holy Spirit. Thus, after the Ascension, God remains with us not only in the person of Christ, but also perpetually and everywhere through the work of the Spirit.
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer
and rise from the dead on the third day
and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins,
would be preached in his name
to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
You are witnesses of these things.
And behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you;
but stay in the city
until you are clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany,
raised his hands, and blessed them.
As he blessed them he parted from them
and was taken up to heaven.
They did him homage
and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy,
and they were continually in the temple praising God.