Catechesis of Pope John Paul II
April 12, 1989
April 12, 1989
[The Ascension of the Lord] completes the mystery of the Incarnation. It is the ultimate fulfillment of the messianic mission of the Son of God who had come on earth to redeem us. . . .
We read at the beginning of Acts a passage in which Luke presents the apparitions and the Ascension in greater detail: "To them [the apostles] He presented Himself alive after His passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3). This gives us an indication about the date of the ascension: forty days after the Resurrection. We shall see shortly that it also informs us about the place.
As regards the question of time, one does not see why it should be denied that Jesus appeared repeatedly to His disciples during forty days, as stated in Acts. The biblical symbolism of the number forty, understood as indicating a period of time completely sufficient for the attainment of the desired purpose, is accepted by Jesus. He had previously withdrawn for forty days into the desert before beginning His ministry, and now appeared for forty days on earth before ascending definitively into heaven.
Undoubtedly, time in relation to the risen Jesus is a different standard of measure from ours. The Risen One is already in the eternal now, which is without succession or variation. However, inasmuch as He still operates in the world, instructing the apostles and establishing the Church, the transcendent now is inserted into the time of the human world, by once again adapting Himself to it through love. Thus, the mystery of the eternity-time relationship is heightened by the permanence of the risen Christ on earth. Nevertheless, the mystery does not cancel His presence in space and time. Rather, it exalts and raises to the level of eternal values what He does, says, touches, institutes and determines: in a word, the Church. . . .
Certainly, when Christ ascended into heaven, this coexistence and nexus between the eternal now and earthly time is dissolved, and there remains the time of the pilgrim Church in history. Christ's presence is now invisible and beyond time, like the action of the Holy Spirit in souls.
According to the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus "was taken up into heaven" (1:2) on the Mount of Olives (cf. 1:12). . . . The Mount of Olives had been the place of Jesus' agony in Gethsemane, and it was the last point of contact between the risen one and the small group of His disciples at the moment of His Ascension. This happened after Jesus has repeated the announcement of the sending of the Spirit, by whose action that small group would be transformed into the Church and launched on the pathway of history.
The Ascension is therefore the final event of Christ's life and earthly mission. Pentecost will be the first day of the life and history "of his body which is the Church" (Col 1:24). This is the fundamental meaning of the fact of the Ascension, beyond the particular circumstances in which it took place and the context of the biblical symbolism in which it can be considered.
According to Luke, Jesus "was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight" (Acts 1:9). In this text two essential points are to be noted: "He was lifted up" (elevation-exaltation) and "a cloud took Him" (entrance into the chiaroscuro of mystery).
"He was lifted up": this expression corresponds to the sensible and spiritual experience of the apostles. It refers to an upward movement, to a passage from earth to heaven, especially as a sign of another "passage": Christ passes to the glorified state in God. The first meaning of the Ascension is precisely this: a revelation that the Risen One has entered the heavenly intimacy of God. That is proved by "the cloud," a biblical sign of the divine presence. Christ disappears from the eyes of His disciples by entering the transcendent sphere of the invisible God. . . .
Jesus had foretold it: "You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven," as we read in Mark's Gospel (Mk 14:62). Luke in his turn writes: "The Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God" (Lk 22:69). Likewise the deacon Stephen, the first martyr at Jerusalem, at the time of his death will see Christ: "I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God" (Acts 7:56). The idea was therefore rooted and widespread in the early Christian communities, as an expression of the kingship attained by Jesus by His Ascension into heaven.