The Ascension is the beginning of Jesus’ heavenly ministry

Father John A. Kiley

The Ascension of Jesus Christ into heavenly glory was not so much the conclusion of his earthly ministry as it was the beginning of his heavenly ministry. Jesus in heaven is still the mediator between God and man, still the agent by which God the Father reaches out toward all humanity welcoming every person, embracing every nation, greeting every race. The ascended Christ, who was indeed a man, who was indeed flesh as well as Divine, means that now, for the first time, humanity “has a place in God.” Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, long before becoming Benedict XVI, wrote that “in Christ human nature, the humanity in which we all share, has entered into the inner life of God in a new and hitherto unheard of way.” He goes to write that, through the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, the human race “has found an everlasting place in God.”
Yes, now that humankind has solidified a place in heaven through the God/man Jesus Christ, men and women need wait no longer to enjoy heavenly bliss but may begin heaven on earth by drawing closer to Jesus in this life. Again, as author Ratzinger asserts, “we go to heaven and enter into heaven to the extent that we go to Jesus Christ and enter into him.” And the German scholar is not alone in his assertion that the ascended humanity of Jesus Christ is a pledge to all mankind of the nearness of God. He cites the Church father Tertullian who wrote, “Be consoled, flesh and blood, for in Christ you have taken possession of heaven and of God’s kingdom!” So perhaps Emily Dickenson, an unlikely co-author with Benedict XVI, was correct when she wrote, “So instead of going to heaven at last, I’m going all along.”
Fr. Ratzinger writes, as noted above, that, through Christ’s Ascension, “human nature, the humanity in which we all share, has entered into the inner life of God in a new and hitherto unheard of way.” This “inner life of God” is indeed shared with mankind through the “Spirit of Jesus,” as Acts 16:7 would later label humanity’s heavenly benefactor, enabling all believers to enter more fully into the very life of God even here and now, certainly through faith and prayer but also through charity and good works. Indeed this “inner life,” this “Spirit of Jesus,” is surely nothing less than the Holy Spirit which will be shared first with the Church on Pentecost and through the Church’s ministry eventually and hopefully all mankind.
Jesus himself clearly knew that his Ascension into heaven was not the termination of his earthly ministry but an extension of his own salvific work now to be done through the Church. The glorified humanity of Christ in heaven would continue his work of salvation through the Apostles, through the Church’s ministers, through the believing faithful. As St. Luke’s Acts attests in this Sunday’s first reading, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The Christian world does well to pause on this Ascension Day to ponder the transfer of heavenly power from the heart of Christ to the hands of man. Sharing the inner life of God himself deserves a deep breath. But well do the “two men dressed in white” chide the awestruck apostles with the challenging words, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” God’s gift of grace merits more than wonder, it deserves a hearty response. These first followers of Jesus were being challenged to be “witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Yes, God was sharing his inner life with this first apostolic band. Now these bewildered men were being dared to share the inner life of God with every nation. From the start, Christ’s Church was meant not only to be holy but also to be Catholic, extending God’s gift of Divine life throughout the entire world.
The optional second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians at this holy day Mass stresses the practical fruits of Christ’s Ascension: “But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift…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 to manhood, to the extent of the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13). Yes, the ascension of Christ was not the completion of the Master’s work but the extension of the Master’s work now through the Church: through the hierarchy, through the clergy, through the religious and through the laity. All believers are empowered to witness Christ daily and effectively throughout the world.