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What is the significance of the Ascension?

Not many weeks ago, the church celebrated the Ascension of Our Lord. This event might strike us as a sort of postscript to Our Lord’s earthly life: Hasn’t he accomplished our salvation through the cross and resurrection? In this article, let’s consider three ways the Ascension is significant, and let’s refer to these three ways as the salvific, the ecclesial and the eschatological significances.

First, like the crucifixion and the resurrection, the Ascension is a cause of our salvation. To see how this is the case, it is helpful to know our Old Testament, specifically, Leviticus 16. In this chapter, God commands the ancient Israelites to keep the feast of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This feast is famous for being the only time each year anyone enters the Holy of Holies, which is the innermost and most sacred room in the Temple. Specifically, the high priest enters it bringing with him the blood of the sacrifice. In Hebrews 9, St. Paul teaches that the Holy of Holies is symbolic and representative of heaven. So, when Christ ascends into heaven with the blood of the sacrifice, that is, with his humanity, Christ acts as the true high priest and so completes the work of salvation.

St. Thomas Aquinas in the “Summa Theologae” (part 3, question 57) briefly discusses this point as one of the ways Christ saves us through the Ascension. Among the other reasons, he draws from a principle seen in Paul’s other letters: Christ is the head and the church constitutes his body. The head on my body can’t be in my house while my body is in my car. They go together. So, if Christ ascends, so shall we. This is the ecclesial significance. St. Thomas explains that “Christ by once ascending into heaven acquired for himself and for us in perpetuity the right and worthiness of a heavenly dwelling-place.”

For the eschatological significance, we can look again at the Old Testament, this time the Book of Daniel. In Chapter 7, the Messiah, or “the one like a son of Man,” comes on the clouds to judge the kingdoms of the earth, and this was the general messianic expectation in the first century. However, instead the Messiah came in a manger and was crucified. So, how is Daniel 7 fulfilled? First, let’s note that when Christ is asked if he is the Messiah, he responds: “ I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mt 26:64). This indicates that he will yet fulfill the Daniel 7 prophecy. Second, just after Jesus ascends on a cloud, the angels say: “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). That is, he will come on the clouds at the second coming. Few expected the Messiah to come in two stages, but when the angels say that Jesus will come in fulfillment of Daniel 7, they are in effect confirming that he is the Messiah, and therefore Lord over all the earth.

So, by the Ascension, Christ 1) completes his atoning work, 2) allows the saints to enter heaven and 3) anticipates his second coming. For us, this means peace with God, an ultimate refuge from the evils and vicissitudes of this life, and confidence that Our Lord is Lord over all. In a year of uncertainty, chaos and violence, the Ascension of Christ can shape our hope that we do not belong to this world but even now, by his grace, we “sit with him in the heavenly places” (Eph 2:6).

Montanaro is assistant professor of sacred Scripture at Christendom Graduate School of Theology in Alexandria.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020