When you hear the word “heaven,” what do you picture in your mind? Fluffy clouds, bright light, cherubs, or pearly gates? Regardless of what we see with our mind’s eye, we don’t really know what heaven will be like. St. Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him” (2:9). Heaven is greater and more perfect than anything we could begin to imagine.
However, that being said, we do know for certain one thing about heaven, namely, there are two human bodies there: the Blessed Virgin Mary and Christ. It is Christ’s physical ascent into heaven that we celebrate today, in the feast of the Ascension. With the Ascension, humanity is forever part of heaven. As theologian Peter Kreeft writes, “Christ’s Ascension brought his human body and soul to heaven into the Godhead forever.”
I once viewed the Ascension as a mark on the roadmap between Easter and Pentecost … not really a major event itself, but more as preparation for the bigger feast of Pentecost. Well, I was wrong! Consider this: the Catholic Church teaches that the Ascension is not just a moment in the life of Our Lord. No, it is actually part of His redemptive action. The Paschal mystery doesn’t end with the Resurrection on Easter; it includes Christ’s Passion, crucifixion, Resurrection, and the Ascension. (This explains why it is a holy day of obligation!)
The Ascension is the last act of Christ here on earth. Interestingly, it parallels in some ways His birth, His first act on earth. In both cases people look to the sky (shepherds and the apostles). Angels act as messengers, directing, explaining, and encouraging. And both moments focus on Christ’s physical body.
Why, exactly, did Christ have to leave? What other marvelous deeds and mighty acts might He have done had He remained here?
Firstly, Christ ascended because earth was no longer a suitable dwelling place for Him. Remember that scene at the empty tomb when Mary Magdalene realizes that Jesus is standing before her? Our Lord tells her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:17). His body is now a glorified body: He can enter closed rooms, suddenly disappear, and no longer physically suffers. This is a glorified body that belongs in the glory of heaven, where the angelic hosts can adore and worship Him!
But Christ ascended because it was also better for us for Him to leave. At the Last Supper, Jesus said to His apostles, “But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).
God always does what is best for us, even though at times we may not recognize it. In the instance of the Ascension, Christ left this earth so He could be with us in an even better, more intimate way. He is intimately with us—within us—in the Eucharist. Pope Francis said, “The Ascension does not point to Jesus’ absence, but tells us that He is alive in our midst in a new way. He is no longer in a specific place in the world as He was before the Ascension. He is now in the lordship of God, present in every space and time, close to each one of us.” In heaven, Christ continues to help us here on earth. Seated at the right hand of the Father, Christ is our Eternal High Priest, interceding for us.
Perhaps this new, continuing presence of Christ is why our Blessed Mother and the apostles left the Ascension “with great joy” (Luke 24:52). The Ascension is not a sad moment, but one of joy! Jesus is with us in a different way, but still here. And with His Ascension, there is the wonderful expectation of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit who will inspire, guide, and direct the apostles in their mission.
Indeed, at the Ascension, we see the shift from the ministry of Christ to the ministry of the Church. We can view the Ascension as the connecting link between these two ministries. Perhaps that is why St. Luke included the Ascension at the end of his gospel and at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles. In His final words to His followers, Jesus says, “ … you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The power of Christ is now given to the Church. Christ’s apostles and their successors will bring the Good News of the Gospel to all corners of the earth.
That is the same ministry that we, members of the Church, are called to exercise. How are we witnesses for Christ—in our families, workplaces, friendships, and community? After Christ ascends into heaven, the two angels who appear exhort the apostles, “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Let’s not forget that Jesus will come again—not as an unassuming, helpless infant, but coming out of the sky in all His majesty and glory, the hosts of angels announcing His Second Coming. He will come to earth again, but we know not the hour. Are we ready? Are we conscientiously doing the work He has given us to do?
In the middle of each Mass, the priest calls us to “lift up our hearts.” Every day and every moment we should lift them up … all the way to heaven.