“When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight” (Acts 1:9).
Let’s face it, the more we read about the gospel account of Jesus’ Ascension, the more we are reminded of its resemblance to the good-guy-bad-guy stories of Walt Disney. The bad guys beat up on the good guy; the good guy suffers terrible humiliations and hardships; a magical power from above appears to rescue the good guy and fix up the bad guys; the good guy rises from his demise and literally disappears into the sky in a thousand points of glimmering and swirling lights. What a wonderful ending that makes the child in us happy!
But Walt Disney magics are pure fantasies. In the real world we live in, reason, to the extent that our rational faculties allow us to command, must be the steering wheel that directs our thinking process as we strive to understand the empirical experiences happening all around us. When confronted with the extraordinary phenomenon of the Ascension, as recounted by St. Luke in this Sunday’s 1st and 3rd readings, we must ask: Where is Jesus going? Is he departing into a remote region of the cosmos somewhere? Is his Ascension a journey to a distant star? The scene that ended Jesus’ journey on earth, glorious as it is, remains perplexing and incomprehensible to human reason even after 2000 years. Could the Ascension account be a fabrication of Jesus’ followers, created like a Walt Disney, feel-good fantasy to gloss over the tragic death of their master? Questions such as these must be addressed and put to rest, leaving no excuse for the probing mind’s speculative inclination to fester further.
What we must not lose sight of is that before Jesus’ Ascension, there was his resurrection. As pointed out by Pope Benedict XVI, resurrection brings a whole new dimension of space and physicality that is completely foreign and incomprehensible to us. It’s a state of being not experienced by any human beings until it’s time for our own resurrection when “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake; some shall live forever, others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace” (Daniel 12:2).
What’s really enlightening about the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances is that they give us a first glimpse, no matter how primitive, of what it’s like to live in a resurrected body, even if the encounters were scantily and poorly illustrated by the witnesses, who understandably were shocked and disoriented, and simply lacked the intuition needed to understand the extraordinary experiences properly. Clearly, the resurrected Christ no longer exists in the spatial dimension of this world: the doors were locked where the disciples gathered, but he was able to enter somehow; and did so suddenly (c.f. John 20:19, 26). The encounters show that the resurrected Christ doesn’t exist the way we do: in one space alongside other spaces. Under normal circumstances, when a physical human body, or any physical body for that matter, rises up, it means the object is vacating from a lower space to enter into a higher space. This is the logic underlying our earlier speculation that maybe Jesus is going up to a distant star. But with the resurrected Christ, who exists in a new dimension of space and physicality, this is not the case at all.
This understanding of the resurrected Christ leads us to conclude that Jesus’ upward movement on Ascension is not his “going away” (again, forget about the “distant star”!), but his “coming” in a new and resurrected state; it’s not a departure, but a new form of closeness and continuing presence. This is evident in the post-Ascension reaction of the apostles, who “worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy” (Luke 24:52). If Jesus had really departed, shouldn’t they be perplexed and sad instead? Jesus, who has garnered a new dimension of being through resurrection, is now as close to us as ever, if not closer. He now has a divine presence that transcends our spatial dimension, a presence that manifests itself especially in the Eucharist.
No, Jesus’ Ascension doesn’t mean he’s relocating to a distant star. It doesn’t even mean he is leaving us. His upward movement is indicative of “an ontological leap”, to use Pope Benedict XVI’s language, that opens up “a new space of life, a new space of being in union with God”. To borrow a socioeconomic jargon, it’s “upward mobility” in its truest sense! With this understanding of Jesus’ Ascension in mind, we can appreciate better Jesus’ words to the Apostles before his Passion: “I go away and I will come to you” (John 14:28).
(Reference: Jesus of Nazareth – From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, 272-293.)