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May 24, 2017

Why Jesus Had to Ascend to Heaven: Answers from Scripture and Aquinas

Michael Ruszala

The disciples were troubled at the Last Supper when Jesus hinted of his going up to the Father (John 13:33). Then after the Ascension, they were found “standing there looking at the sky” before being reassured by the angels (Acts 1:11). We could ask with them: Why did Jesus have to ascend to heaven only 40 days after the Resurrection? Why could he not have remained walking among his followers for many ages?

Scripture shows us that the Ascension is connected intrinsically with the Paschal Mystery and the coming of the Holy Spirit, and thus was crucial for our salvation and the welfare of the Church. John’s Gospel shows us that Jesus spent a considerable amount of time at the Last Supper tenderly explaining it to his apostles (John 13-16). St. Thomas Aquinas also brings clarity to the question through his interpretation of the Gospels and the New Testament epistles.

Leading the Way to Heaven

St. Thomas Aquinas argues that the Ascension is part of what Christ did to effect our salvation (Summa Theologica III, 57, 6). He quotes John 16:7 in which Jesus tells the apostles, “But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go.”

St. Thomas writes, “First, He prepared the way for our ascent into heaven.” St. Thomas cites Ephesians 4, where St. Paul recalls a Psalm prophesying the Christ: “He ascended on high and took prisoners captive; he gave gifts to men” (Ephesians 4:8). St. Paul takes Psalm 68 as pointing to Christ’s deliverance of the just souls in Hades and opening the doors of heaven. Jesus himself ascending there was fitting for their welcome. Thus St. Thomas also cites John 14:2, where Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be” (John 14:2-3).

Jesus himself is the way to heaven, and thus it is fitting that he himself abide there to reign. The Apostle Thomas asked Jesus at the Last Supper, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” (John 14:5). Jesus replied, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, then you will also know my Father” (John 14:6-7).

Interceding for Humanity

St. Thomas’ second reason for the Ascension as essential to salvation is that through it, Jesus went to heaven to intercede for us as the eternal high priest. He quotes Hebrews 7:25, which reads, “Therefore, he is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them.” Further on we read in Hebrews 9:24, “For Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made by hands, a copy of the true one, but heaven itself, that he might now appear before God on our behalf.”

Granting Gifts to the Church

Enthroned at the right hand of the Father, Christ sends the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit upon the Church. Having quoted the prophesy that “He gave gifts to men,” St. Paul continues in Ephesians 4, “The one who descended is also the one who ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. And he gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the extent of the full stature of Christ…” (Ephesians 4:9-13).

Enlivened by the Holy Spirit and enabled by his charisms, the Church grows into the fullness of Christ, who is in heaven in all his glory. Jesus told the apostles at the Last Supper, “…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).

Though Matthew’s Gospel does not narrate the actual event of the Ascension, it presents the Great Commission in its place when the apostles go up the mountain with Jesus for the last time: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20). Only when they are emboldened by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost do the apostles then have the courage to go out and do so (Acts 2).

Further, speaking of the gifts connected with the coming Holy Spirit, Jesus said to the apostles, “The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name—he will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” (John 14:26-27).

Seated at the Father’s Right Hand

Mark’s Gospel tells us, “So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19). St. Thomas explains that this is not to be understood as a spatial arrangement, since the Father is pure spirit. Rather, it means that Christ abides in the full unveiled glory of the divinity (while on earth, it was veiled) and that full power of judgment is granted to him (Summa III, 58, 1). Sitting at the Father’s right hand belongs to Christ both as God and as man. With regard to divinity, it means that the Father and the Son are equal in Godhead, though the Father is the origin of the relations within the Trinity (Summa III, 58, 2).

With regard to humanity, being seated at the Father’s right hand means that Jesus is the judge of all. We read in Hebrews, “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help” (Hebrews 4:14-16).

The Ascension Increases our Faith, Hope, and Charity

St. Thomas teaches that the Ascension also serves to raise us in faith, hope, and charity (Summa III, 57, 1, ad. 3). St. Thomas cites what Jesus said to the Apostle Thomas: “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (John 20:29). Thus firstly, the Ascension enables our faith in the unseen Christ. Second, it promotes hope, since Christ has gone to the place he has promised for those who remain faithful. Third, it promotes charity, since it is from his place in heaven that Christ sends us the Holy Spirit and the fire of his love, urging us to the love of God and neighbor.

On this, Jesus told the apostles at the Last Supper, “My children, I will be with you only a little while longer. You will look for me, and as I told the Jews, ‘Where I go you cannot come,’ so now I say it to you. I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:33-35).

The Fittingness of the Ascension

Christ ascended to heaven both for our sake and for the fittingness of who he is. St. Thomas writes, “Now by His Resurrection Christ entered upon an immortal and incorruptible life. But whereas our dwelling-place is one of generation and corruption, the heavenly place is one of incorruption. And consequently it was not fitting that Christ should remain upon earth after the Resurrection; but it was fitting that He should ascend to heaven” (Summa III, 57, 1).

Jesus told the Apostles, “You heard me tell you, ‘I am going away and I will come back to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father…” (John 14:28). St. Thomas explains, “He did acquire something as to the fittingness of place, which pertains to the well-being of glory… He had a certain kind of joy from such fittingness… He rejoiced thereat in a new way, as at a thing completed” (Summa III, 57, 1, ad 2).

Christ, nonetheless, is with us always on earth. Supernaturally, his presence is seen in the many workings of the Holy Spirit manifest in the Church and also in a tangible way in the Holy Eucharist. In the liturgy, the Church now awaits the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost: “Come, Holy Spirit, come!” (Pentecost Sequence).

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