April/May 2013 - Vol. 67

The Ascension of Christ
by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979) was an American theologian and bishop, first in New York City and then in Rochester, New York. He became well-known for his preaching, especially on television and radio. He hosted the night-time radio program The Catholic Hour for twenty years (1930–1950) before moving to television and presenting a weekly program called, Life Is Worth Living. The show ran from 1951 until 1957, drawing as many as 30 million people on a weekly basis. He wrote 73 books and numerous articles and columns. Mother Theresa of Calcutta always kept a copy of Sheen’s book, Life of Christ, with her wherever she travelled for daily reflection and meditation.

For those forty days after his resurrection, our Divine Savior was preparing his Apostles to bear the loss of his presence through the gain of the Comforter who was to come. 

Throughout the course of forty days 
he had been appearing to them, 
and telling them about the kingdom of God. 
Acts of the Apostles 1:3 
It was not a period when he dispensed gifts, but rather one in which he gave out laws and prepared the structure for his Mystical Body, the Church. Moses had fasted days before the giving of the Law; Elijah fasted forty days before the restoration of the Law; and now for forty days the risen Savior laid the pillars of his Church, and the new Law of the Gospel. But the forties were about to end, and the Apostles were bidden to wait upon the fiftieth day—the day of jubilee. 

Christ led them out as far as Bethany, which was to be the scene of the last adieu; not in Galilee but in Jerusalem, where he had suffered, would take place his return to his heavenly Father. His sacrifice being completed, as he was about to ascend to his heavenly throne, he raised his hands bearing the imprint of nails. That gesture would be one of the last recollections the Apostles would have, save one. The hands were raised first to heaven and then pulled downward to earth as if to draw down its blessings on men. Pierced hands best distribute benediction. In the Book of Leviticus, after the reading of the prophetical promise of the Messiah, there came the high priestly benediction; so too, after showing that all prophecies were fulfilled in him, he prepared to enter the heavenly sanctuary. Hands that held the scepter of authority in heaven and on earth now gave the final blessing: 

And even as he blessed them he parted from them, 
and was carried up into heaven… 
Luke 24:51 

And is seated now at the right hand of God. 

Mark 16:19 

So they bowed down to worship him, 
and went back full of joy to Jerusalem, 
where they spent their time continually in the temple, 
praising and blessing God. 

Luke 24:52, 53 
Had Christ remained on earth, sight would have taken the place of faith. In heaven, there will be no faith because his followers will see; there will be no hope, because they will possess; but there will be love for love endures forever! His leave-taking of the earth combined the cross and the crown that governed the smallest detail of his life. The ascension took place on Mount Olivet at the base of which is Bethany. He led his Apostles out through Bethany, which meant passing through Gethsemane and the very spot where he wept over Jerusalem! Not as from a throne, but from a mountain elevated above the garden with the twisted olive trees crimsoned with his blood, did he give the final manifestation of his divine power! His heart was not embittered by his cross, for the ascension was the fruit of his crucifixion. As he said, it was fitting that he suffer in order to enter into his glory. 

In the ascension the Savior did not lay aside the garment of flesh with which he had been clothed; for his human nature would be the pattern of the future glory of other human natures, which would become incorporated to him through a sharing of his life. Intrinsic and deep was the relation between his Incarnation and his ascension. The incarnation or the assuming of a human nature made it possible for him to suffer and redeem. The ascension exalted into glory that same human nature that was humbled to the death. 

A coronation upon the earth, instead of an ascension into heaven, would have confined men’s thoughts of him to the earth. But the ascension would cause men’s minds and hearts to ascend above the earth. In relation to himself, it was fitting that the human nature which he took as the instrument for teaching, and governing, and sanctifying, should partake of glory as it shared in shame. It was very hard to believe that he, who was the Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief, was the beloved Son in whom the Father was well pleased. It was difficult to believe that he, who did not come down from a cross, could ascend into heaven, or that the momentary glory that shone about him on the Mount of the Transfiguration was a permanent possession. The ascension put all such doubts away by introducing his human nature into intimate and eternal communion with God. 

The human nature which he took was mocked as a prophet when they blindfolded him and asked him to tell who struck him; he was mocked as a king when they put upon him a mock-robe of royalty and gave him a reed of straw for a scepter; finally he was mocked as a priest when they challenged him, who was offering himself as a victim, to come down from the cross. By the ascension his triple office of Teacher, King, and Priest was vindicated. But the vindication would be complete when he would come in justice as the Judge of men in the human nature which he took from men. No one to be judged could complain that God knows not the trials to which humans are subject. His very appearance as the Son of Man would prove that he had fought the same battles as men and endured the same temptations as those standing at his bar of justice. His judgment would immediately find an echo in hearts. 

Another reason for the ascension was that he might plead in heaven to his Father with a human nature common to the rest of men. He could now, as it were, show the scars of his glory not only as trophies of victory but also as emblems of intercession. The night he went into the garden he prayed, as if he were already at the right hand of the Father in his heavenly abode. He uttered a prayer that was less that of a dying than that of an exalted Redeemer. 

So that the love you have bestowed upon me may dwell in them, and I, too, may dwell in them. John 17:26 

While in heaven, he would be not only an Advocate of men with the Father but he would also send the Holy Spirit as man’s Advocate with him. The Christ at the right hand of the Father would represent humanity before the Father’s throne; the Holy Spirit abiding with the faithful would represent in them the Christ who went to the Father. In the ascension, Christ took our necessities to the Father; thanks to the Spirit, Christ the Redeemer would be brought into the hearts of all who would believe in him. 

The Ascension would give Christ the right to intercede powerfully for mortals: 

We can claim a great High Priest, and One who has passed right up 
through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God. 
It was not as if our High Priest was incapable of feeling for us in our humiliations. 
He has been through every trial, fashioned as we are, only sinless. 
Hebrews 4:14

Excerpt from Life of Christ, Chapter 61, (c) by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen 1958, published by Ignatius Press, San Francisco, with forward by Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR. Used with permission.
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