He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
March ended with Holy Week, including the one of the most significant days for Christians: Good Friday. The article for that month explored our understanding of Christ’s redeeming death for us on the Cross. Since April 1st was Easter Sunday, I devoted the April newsletter to the larger topic of Christ’s Resurrection. Following this pattern, because May includes the celebration of Ascension Day, this article this article links to the others to make clear that. in the scheme of salvation, Christ’s Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension are individual parts which taken together form a single redemptive whole.
Comprehending Christ’s ascension into heaven involves special problems beyond those of his death and resurrection. Any adult should be able to comprehend physical death– even when it is a cruel execution and by no means a natural event. What is significant about the Crucifixion is its import and meaning for Christians: we see it as a self-sacrifice of the man Jesus, as well as the redemptive act of the Son, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That he was resurrected on the third day and returned to life is a mystery, to be sure, but one that is attested by his disciples who experienced the risen Christ in person. Their testimony forms the basis of the proclamation of the gospel. Because they encountered the risen Christ, they were able to move from hiding and passive discipleship into the active role of apostles to the world.
But the Ascension of Christ cannot be easily comprehended by modern minds. Struggling as everyone does to find words to match or describe the event, we realize how difficult is the task of explicating what the Ascension is or what it means. We do not live in a three-tier world where one stands on the ground and looks up into heaven as a place to which we can be transported if only we had the right elevator. Instead, we need to come to terms with an event which the disciples reportedly witnessed, but which is inexplicable in purely physical terms. That Christ rose from the dead is essential to our understanding of ourselves as “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:11) Thus, Paul links the lives of the faithful to Christ’s own death and resurrection.
But the same resurrected Jesus does not walk the earth in bodily form today, nor is he found in any sepulcher or other burial place; instead, we affirm that he lives and has returned with his mortal body to that place or state where he dwelt prior to the Incarnation. Before his death, Jesus predicted that he would be exalted into heaven after his Resurrection. For example, speaking to and of the Father, Jesus says,
I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.
So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that
I had in your presence before the world existed. (John 17: 4-5)
For Christ was not resurrected in order to live and move in a limited locality such as Galilee or Judea. Nor was he given life in order to die again – his humanity was made complete in his suffering and Crucifixion. Christ has proven his full mortal status. As Paul writes,
We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again;
death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin,
once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. (Romans 6: 9-10)
By this point, the work he began with his Incarnation and birth has been completed, and the risen Christ needs to return to be with the Creator. There Christ can attain to the full glory of his heavenly being and be proclaimed King of all creation by angels and archangels and all those who worship him. This was affirmed early on in the ancient Church hymn which Paul quotes:
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)
The other truth of Jesus’ departure in his Ascension is that it sets the stage for the coming of the Holy Spirit to be the new guide for the apostles. Jesus’ last promises to his disciples include notice that he will send the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Advocate, the Paraclete to stay with the disciples in his place.
Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away,
for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you;
but if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16: 7)
His words indicate that it is necessary for him to go away so that the Holy Spirit may descend and dwell with us in his place. His removal from them – classically designated his Ascension to heaven – is both historically and theologically necessary. If Christ does not complete his return to the heavenly places, the Holy Spirit cannot begin its work by being present, nor can this age proceed to its appointed end when Christ will return as promised.
This is what the Church from earliest times has proclaimed. Christ has completed the cycle from heavenly being entirely part of the Godhead, to incarnate Word of God dwelling among us as one of us, to the Crucified One who actually died and was buried, to resurrected Christ bearing the signs of his passion and death as he returns to dwell with the Father. There he is enthroned “at the right hand of God.” From this exalted state, Christ lives and is the object of our prayers. But he is not removed from us. Though apparently absent from this world, the enduring Christ lives in all of us who have committed ourselves to him, even as he has transformed the gathering of his followers into the body of Christ on earth.