This Sunday we celebrate the glorious Ascension of the Lord. The Ascension of Jesus back to the Father is utterly crucial in salvation history, although perhaps the least understood.
We can typically grasp the importance of Christ’s death for our sins and know that it is of the upmost significance that he is risen from the dead. However, the Ascension can tend to elude our grasp.
After Jesus commands the Apostles to preach the Gospel and baptize, Mark goes on to tell us, "So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sat down as the right hand of God" (Mk. 16:19).
One of the most important aspects of the Old Testament that Jesus came to fulfill was the covenant made with David. All of the Gospel writers in some way show that Jesus is in fact the new and eternal Davidic king. God swore a covenant to David that someone would reign on his throne forever. The fact that Jesus is fulfilling this covenant is obvious when Luke recounts the Annunciation. The angel Gabriel proclaims to Mary, "…the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end" (1:32b-33).
However, the notion of Jesus going to the right hand of the Father also shows us that Jesus is the fulfillment of this covenant. The place of highest honor for all of the Davidic kings is mentioned by King David himself in Psalm 110, a royal enthronement Psalm. Now that the time has come for David’s son, Solomon, to take over the kingship, David says, "The Lord says to my lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool’" (v. 1). In other words Yahweh is saying to Solomon, sit at my right hand.
So, all of the Davidic kings sat in this place of honor temporarily, at least in a figurative way. Jesus, however, will sit in this place of honor forever, literally. The Ascension thus concludes with the heavenly enthronement of the new and eternal Davidic king.
Another important feature of the Old Testament that Jesus came to fulfill has to do with the priesthood. Jesus comes to be our eternal and heavenly high priest. The fact that Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father also shows that he is fulfilling all of the aspects of the priesthood in the Old Testament.
In order to show us the fulfillment of this the Letter to the Hebrews, also draws from Psalm 110. The Lord also says in this Psalm to Solomon, "You are a priest for ever according to the order of Melchizedek" (110:4b).
Hebrews tells us that Jesus was "designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek" (5:10). It goes on to say, "But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…" (10:12). What was Jesus’ sacrifice? "…he offered up himself" (7:27).
The primary role of every priest is to offer sacrifice. Jesus, as a priest, offered the most holy and pure sacrifice of himself. However, Hebrews tells us, "Every high priest is appointed by God to offer gifts and sacrifices; hence it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer" (8:3). What do we make of this?
Jesus is a priest forever in heavenly glory, not just on earth. Therefore Jesus also must have something to offer even in heaven. But how is this to be reconciled with something else Hebrews says? It says that Christ’s sacrifice was, "once for all…" To understand this correctly we have to realize that "once for all," in this context, cannot mean that Jesus self-offering was over and done with two thousand years ago. "Once for all" has to mean that the one sacrifice of Christ continues for all time and eternity. His self-offering has never ended.
He continues to offer himself in heavenly glory as a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. It is not a coincidence that in Genesis 14 we are told that the Priest/King Melchizedek offered bread and wine as a sacrifice. Jesus transforms bread and wine into his body and blood. In the sacrifice of the Eucharist we participate in the once for all sacrifice of Christ. We do not repeat Christ’s sacrifice, because you cannot repeat something that never ended.
Another significant truth that is revealed in the Ascension is the importance of the sending of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says, "…I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you" (Jn. 16:7).
It is only in Christ’s going back to the Father that the Apostles, and you and I, will receive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
However, we will explore more about why this is the case next Sunday when we celebrate the Solemnity of Pentecost.
Finally, something must be said regarding the Ascension that many people do not realize. When Jesus ascended to the Father he did so with the fullness of his humanity which he took on in the Incarnation. This means that when Jesus goes back to the Father he does so with his body.
This means that Christ reigns in heaven with his body. If we get to heaven Jesus will have the resurrected, glorified body. At the end of time when each person experiences the resurrection of his or her body, we will be able to touch the glorified body of the Lord.
This is how much God loves us. The Father sends the Son to become like us in all things, taking on a human soul and a human body, never to get rid of them. What the Second Person of the Trinity does in the Incarnation is irrevocable. He has become like us in all things, and will stay like us.
Also fundamental to contemplating the mystery of the Ascension is to recall that when Adam sinned the Garden of Eden was now closed. This represented the fact that heaven was closed to all humanity. No one in the history of the world had entered heaven. Jesus, true God from true God, takes on human nature and ascends into heaven so that we now might have access to the true Promised Land.
Let’s end with part of the reading from St. Paul for this Sunday. "May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe…" (Eph. 1:18-19).
Brian writes a monthly column, “Veritatis Splendor,” for The Northern Cross of the Diocese of Duluth and his 33-part series on the sacraments for The Northern Cross have also been posted on Catholic News Agency's website, where he also authors a weekly column, “Road to Emmaus,” on the Sunday Readings, (which are translated into Romanian and posted on www.profamilia.ro).
Pizzalato is currently authoring the regular series, "Catechesis and Contemporary Culture," in The Sower, published by the Maryvale Institute. He is also author of the Philosophy of Religion course book for the B.A. in Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition at the Maryvale Institute.
Brian holds an M.A. in Theology and Christian Ministry with a Catechetics specialization and an M.A. in Philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. Brian currently pursuing an M.A. in Biblical Studies at the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO as well as being a Ph.D. candidate at the Maryvale Institute. Brian is married and has six children.