The Ascension Is the Fulfillment of the Mystery of the Incarnation

Author: Pope John Paul II

In his General Audience on Wednesday, 12 April 1989, the Holy Father spoke of the cloud that received Jesus at His ascension as “a biblical sign of the divine presence. Christ disappears from the eyes of his disciples by entering the transcendent sphere of the invisible God.”

The "announcements" of the ascension examined in the previous catechesis shed light on the truth expressed by the earliest creeds in the concise words: "He ascended into heaven." We have already observed that we are dealing with a mystery which is an object of faith. It completes the mystery of the Incarnation. It is the ultimate fulfillment of the messianic mission of the Son of God who had come on earth to redeem us.

Nonetheless, it is also a fact which can be known from the biographical and historical data concerning Jesus, which are contained in the Gospels.

Let us refer to the texts of Luke, and first of all to the last verses of his Gospel: "Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven" (Lk 24:50-51). This means that the apostles had a sensation of "movement" of the whole figure of Jesus, and of an action of "separation" from the earth. The fact that Jesus blessed the apostles at that moment indicates the salvific meaning of his departure. As in the whole of his redemptive mission, his departure included and gave to the world every spiritual good.

This text of Luke, considered in isolation from the others, would seem to suggest that Jesus ascended into heaven on the very day of the resurrection, after his apparition to the apostles (cf. Lk 24:36-49). However, if we read the entire account, we see that the evangelist wishes to synthesize the final events of Christ's life, for he is anxious to describe Jesus' salvific mission which ended with his glorification. Luke records further details of those final events in the Acts of the Apostles, which completes his Gospel. In it he resumes the narrative contained in the Gospel, in order to continue the history of the origins of the Church.

1.  Time and place of the ascension

We read at the beginning of Acts a passage in which Luke presents the apparitions and the ascension in greater detail: "To them [the apostles] he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3). This gives us an indication about the date of the ascension: forty days after the resurrection. We shall see shortly that it also informs us about the place.

As regards the question of time, one does not see why it should be denied that Jesus appeared repeatedly to his disciples during forty days, as stated in Acts. The biblical symbolism of the number forty, understood as indicating a period of time completely sufficient for the attainment of the desired purpose, is accepted by Jesus. He had previously withdrawn for forty days into the desert before beginning his ministry, and now appeared for forty days on earth before ascending definitively into heaven. Undoubtedly time in relation to the risen Jesus is a different standard of measure from ours. The risen one is already in the eternal now which is without succession or variation. However, inasmuch as he still operates in the world, instructing the apostles and establishing the Church, the transcendent now is inserted into the time of the human world, by once again adapting himself to it through love. Thus the mystery of the eternity-time relationship is heightened by the permanence of the risen Christ on earth. Nevertheless, the mystery does not cancel his presence in space and time. Rather it exalts and raises to the level of eternal values what he does, says, touches, institutes and determines: in a word, the Church. Therefore, we say once again: I believe, but without in the least glossing over the reality of what Luke has told us.

Certainly, when Christ ascended into heaven, this coexistence and nexus between the eternal now and earthly time is dissolved, and there remains the time of the pilgrim Church in history. Christ's presence is now invisible and beyond time, like the action of the Holy Spirit in souls.

According to the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus "was taken up into heaven" (1:2) on the Mount of Olives (cf. 1:12). It was from there that the apostles returned to Jerusalem after the ascension. Before this happened, Jesus gave them their final instructions. For example, "He charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father" (Acts 1:4). This promise of the Father was the coming of the Holy Spirit: "You shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 1:5); "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you..." (Acts 1:8). Then it was that "when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight" (Acts 1:9).

The Mount of Olives had been the place of Jesus' agony in Gethsemane, and it was the last point of contact between the risen one and the small group of his disciples at the moment of his ascension. This happened after Jesus has repeated the announcement of the sending of the Spirit, by whose action that small group would be transformed into the Church and launched on the pathway of history. The ascension is therefore the final event of Christ's life and earthly mission. Pentecost will be the first day of the life and history "of his body which is the Church" (Col 1:24). This is the fundamental meaning of the fact of the ascension, beyond the particular circumstances in which it took place and the context of the biblical symbolism in which it can be considered.

According to Luke, Jesus "was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight" (Acts 1:9). In this text two essential points are to be noted: "he was lifted up" (elevation-exaltation) and "a cloud took him" (entrance into the chiaroscuro of mystery).

"He was lifted up": this expression corresponds to the sensible and spiritual experience of the apostles. It refers to an upward movement, to a passage from earth to heaven, especially as a sign of another "passage": Christ passes to the glorified state in God. The first meaning of the ascension is precisely this: a revelation that the risen one has entered the heavenly intimacy of God. That is proved by "the cloud," a biblical sign of the divine presence. Christ disappears from the eyes of his disciples by entering the transcendent sphere of the invisible God.

This last consideration is a further confirmation of the meaning of the mystery which is Jesus Christ's ascension into heaven. The Son who "came forth from the Father and came into the world, now leaves the world and goes to the Father" (cf. Jn 16:28). This return to the Father, the elevation "to the right hand of the Father," concretely realizes a messianic truth foretold in the Old Testament. When the evangelist Mark tells us that "the Lord Jesus...was taken up into heaven" (Mk 16:19), his words echo the "prophecy of the Lord" recorded in Psalm 110:1: "The Lord said to my lord, 'Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool.'" "To sit at the right hand of God" means to share in his kingly power and divine dignity.

Jesus had foretold it: "You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven," as we read in Mark's Gospel (Mk 14:62). Luke in his turn writes: "The Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God" (Lk 22:69). Likewise the deacon Stephen, the first martyr at Jerusalem, at the time of his death will see Christ: "I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God" (Acts 7:56). The idea was therefore rooted and widespread in the early Christian communities, as an expression of the kingship attained by Jesus by his ascension into heaven.

Likewise the Apostle Paul, when writing to the Romans, expresses the same truth about Christ Jesus, "who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who intercedes for us" (Rom 8:34). In the Letter to the Colossians Paul writes: "If, then, you have been raised with Christ, seek the things which are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God" (Col 3:1; cf. Eph 1:20). We read in the Letter to the Hebrews: "We have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven" (Heb 1:3; 8:1); and again: "...who endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb 10:12 and 12:2).

Peter, in his turn, proclaims that Christ "has gone into heaven, and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him" (1 Pet 3:22).

In his first discourse on Pentecost Day, Peter will say of Christ that "being exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you see and hear" (Acts 2:33; cf. also 5:31). Here a new element referring to the Holy Spirit is inserted into the truth of the ascension and kingship of Christ.

Let us reflect on it for a moment. In the Apostles' Creed the ascension into heaven is associated with the Messiah's elevation into the Father's kingdom: "He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father." This signifies the inauguration of the kingdom of the Messiah, which fulfills the prophetic vision of the Book of Daniel on the Son of Man: "To him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed" (Dan 7:13-14).

Peter's Pentecost discourse makes known to us that to the eyes of the apostles, in the context of the New Testament, Christ's elevation to the right hand of the Father is linked especially to the descent of the Holy Spirit. Peter's words witness to the apostles' conviction that only by the ascension did Jesus "receive the Holy Spirit from the Father," to pour it out as he had promised.

Peter's discourse likewise testifies that with the descent of the Holy Spirit the apostles definitively became aware of the vision of that kingdom which Christ had announced from the very beginning and of which he had spoken also after the resurrection (cf. Acts 1:3). Even then his hearers had asked him about the restoration of the kingdom of Israel (cf. Acts 1:6), so deeply imbedded in their minds was the temporalistic interpretation of the messianic mission. Only after having received "the power" of the Spirit of truth, "did they become witnesses to Christ" and to his messianic kingdom, which was definitively brought into being when the glorified Christ "was seated at the right hand of the Father." In God's economy of salvation there is therefore a close connection between Christ's elevation and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles. From that moment the apostles became witnesses to the kingdom that will have no end. In this perspective the words which they heard after Christ's ascension acquire a fullness of meaning, namely, "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). This is a prophecy of a final and definitive fullness which will be had when, in the power of the Spirit of Christ, the whole divine plan in history will attain its fulfillment.