When Jesus ascended, did He go “up” into heaven?
You might think the answer is obviously yes.” But thoughtful reflection gives us an answer that is not so simple.
We can say “yes” He went up into heaven only in the context of saying that at His birth He came down from heaven. We must not, however, limit ourselves to thinking in directional terms, like an elevator comes down and then goes up. We’re not talking here about directional operations in measurable space. We are talking here theologically; we are talking about His changes in status. He came down to us from the right hand of the Father and now He returns to sit at the right hand of the Father, the state of being from whence He came to us in the first place.
God sent His only-begotten Son to seek us out, to find us, to join us into His Christ so that Christ might take us back to our Father, His Father, your Father, and my Father. The odyssey of God the Son has, for us, a mission – a mission with a departure, arrival and return.
Only the One who came down to us from the Father can return to the Father. He came to us in our powerlessness because we could not then and cannot now save ourselves. Only the Infinite One can bridge the infinite chasm we caused to exist between ourselves and God by our turning away from Him in sin. Adam and Eve turned away from God, and we have also. By ourselves we have no way back to our Father’s house. Only Christ can bridge the chasm between us and our Father in heaven.
That bridge that Jesus Christ built used the wood of the manger and the wood of the cross. Jesus promised us that when He was lifted up on the cross He would then, in His resurrection and ascension into heaven, be able to take us with Him back to our Father in heaven. The first lifting up led to the second lifting up. Christ’s ascension on his cross led to His ascension into heaven. Joined into His humanity through the Sacraments of His Church we will ascend through Him, with Him, and in Him into heaven. The sacraments, we must remember, are not things we do. Sacraments are wonders that God the Son does.
It is important to remember that the truly human Jesus of Nazareth became, in His resurrection and ascension, the Christ of glory. Thereby in His humanity we are taken up into heaven in Christ’s divinity. Our humanity joined by Holy Communion into His, is given the destiny to return in Christ to His Father (and now ours) in heaven.
It is not yet, however, completed. Truly Christ Jesus is risen and has ascended into heaven. But work remains to be done. Christ Jesus now sits at the right hand of the Father in definitive and irreversible glory. Our humanity, however, is still on its journey. Our own odyssey is yet incomplete. Jesus intercedes for us constantly; Jesus continually brings His Father’s presence, power, and love to us. We still have to receive it and respond. The story of our journey is not yet over.
Risen and ascended into heaven, Jesus has established God’s kingdom here on earth among us. He often spoke of God’s kingdom. Jesus is quoted as speaking of God’s kingdom 107 times in the Gospels, an astonishing number considering the relatively few quotes of Jesus found in the New Testament.
But what kind of a kingdom is it? It is not a political, legal, or social entity. It’s boundaries are beyond our categories, beyond our specifications, beyond our human measurements. It is realized, however, in our human hearts, in our attitudes, and in our ways of relating to others here on earth. It is a kingdom of justice, love and peace. God’s kingdom is located in our hearts and souls.
Being seated at the right hand of the Father, Christ has inaugurated God’s kingdom here among us, but it has not yet been brought to completion. God has offered, we have yet to respond. God has initiated, we have yet to finish what He has started. We live in the time of the already, but not yet.
Given the state of the world in which we live it ought to be obvious that we do not have the resources and the wherewithal to accomplish the immense task that confronts us. Given the levels of violence and hatred that surround us, given the indifference toward God and the rejection of God’s ways we find in many around us, and given the downright evil and abuse of others, even children, that are a part of our daily news, we desperately need our Daily Bread to nourish, strengthen, and sustain us in realizing God’s kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus did not go away only to leave us orphans. Quite the contrary! Jesus abides with us here. With His Father He sends us His Holy Spirit. He encounters us in the Sacraments of His Mystical Body, the Church. His ascension into heaven is, therefore, not a departure, it is an inauguration of His new presence among us, a presence we find in the sacraments. He disappeared from sight back then in order that He could reappear in His new body, His Mystical Body the Church, down through the ages.
So, in His ascension did Jesus go “up” into heaven? The answer is both “yes” and “no”. We need the eyes and ears of faith in order to discern the complete answer. We, poor and weak as we are, need Christ’s ever-sustaining presence, power, and love that come to us here because He sits now at the right hand of the Father and sends us, through His Holy Spirit, all that we need.
In professing our Catholic faith, we state that we believe “in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.” We can make that statement of belief because of the ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven.
It’s all pure gift, God’s gift to us because He loves us. Let us now give Him thanks.