IN OLD TESTAMENT and Intertestamental Literature, voyage from earth to heaven is a widespread motif . The journey of Enoch, Moses, Elijah, Baruch, and Abraham easily comes to mind. The Book of Enoch, for instance, recounts how this son of Jared was taken up into the heavens, and was appointed guardian of heavenly treasures, chief of the archangels, and attendant upon God’s celestial throne. Of course, in ancient religions, we even find a detailed account of the voyage through the seven spheres of heaven with their gates, hostile spirits and other obstacles. But the Christian understanding of the ascension of Jesus is quite different. In Luke, for example, it signifies the end of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and his earthly ministry, a beginning of his exaltation, and a new way of his presence among us.
To stress that the ascension marks the end of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and of his earthly ministry, it may be noted that with his account of Jesus’ ascension (Luke 24:50-53), Luke’s narrative on the journey to Jerusalem comes to a close. In Luke 9:51, Jesus, whom the Samaritans did not welcome, resolutely determined to journey to the city, where the ultimate rejection awaited him. Here in the farewell scene, that journey is completed, as Jesus blesses his disciples. At the same time, this sets the end of Luke’s account of the story of Jesus, for just as it began in Jerusalem, with Zechariah unable to bless the people gathered in the temple (Luke 1:21-22), so it ends in Jerusalem, with the disciples praising God in the temple, after Jesus blessed them (Luke 24:52). The ascension, therefore, marks the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. In ascending, Jesus entered into God’s presence. This is the essential meaning of “going up” or “ascending far above all heavens” (Eph 4:10).
This, of course, is only one side of the coin. The other is that it signifies the beginning of Jesus’ exaltation: “God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every other name” (Phil 2:9). “God exalted him at his right hand as leader and savior” (Acts 5:30a). It also indicates the start of his glorification and his enthronement at God’s right hand: “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26); “Jesus Christ who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him” (1 Pet 3:21c-22). As a high priest, he passed through the heavens (Heb 4:14) and entered the heavenly sanctuary (9:24). These images and meanings are, of course, related to Jesus’ coming into God’s presence.
But what about his relationship to us? Since Jesus is now an exalted and glorified Lord, the mode of his presence changed. Jesus entered into a new form of presence with his disciples, with us, and in the world. He is present to his disciples on earth in a spiritual way. With us, he is especially present in his signs—in his word, in his minister, in the assembly, in the Eucharist and the sacraments, and among others, among the poor. But his presence among us and in the world is the beginning of the parousia. This has been initiated into the world, but in a hidden form. For this reason, ascension serves as a principle of hope, an anticipation of glory for those who proclaim his death and resurrection in their lives. His invisible presence in his signs will be disclosed definitively in his return in glory. The preface proper to the feast puts it this way: “Mediator between God and man, judge of the world and Lord of hosts, he ascended, not to distance himself from our lowly state, but that we, his members, might be confident of following where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before.”
What does this mean in simple language? That Jesus must ascend—this brought sorrow to his disciples. But they were assured of his presence of another kind. Of course, life is a series of arrivals and departures. After graduating from high school, one goes to college. One says good-bye to bachelorhood when he enters into marriage. But the transition from one term to another is never easy. Some individuals get married, but their mentality remains that of a bachelor. Yet, one cannot appreciate the stage of life one enters unless there is a change in mind-set. Some parents find it difficult to realize that their sons and daughters are no longer children: they simply cannot let go. The same may be said of faith. That Jesus is seated at the right hand and no longer present to us in the way he was physically present to his disciples during the public ministry—this is not necessary a disadvantage for us. On the contrary, we must ever rejoice because of it, even as the disciples were filled with joy as they witnessed the ascension.
Today, his presence to us who believe in his power is no less real than his presence to his disciples. And that experience of his presence is the beginning of the parousia. If we have an intimate relationship with him, we are assured of the final revelation of that participation when he returns in glory. The final transition will occur, and what Jesus is, we will experience and share.