L’Ascension by Gustave Doré
We are living in a particular period of time. By that, I don’t mean the Corona virus. The time between Ascension on Thursday and Pentecost, next Sunday. This is the time of the Pentecost Novena. It is the time that the disciples were united in the Upper Room with Mary, awaiting the advent of the Spirit for nine days. All novenas people pray are patterned after this one. And even today, this is the only official Novena of the Church. This is one of the most neglected and misunderstood of the mysteries of Christ’s life. Like the others, it is a mystery of salvation, and one which is fundamental to our faith.
First, Healing. In the beginning, God created Adam and Eve, to live in union with himself. We were created for God. We will find our fulfilment only in him. God called Adam to rule over all creation in union with him. He was God’s vicar on earth. But with Adam’s fall, his immediate experience is one of alienation from God, from others, and even within himself. It’s almost as if he has started to disintegrate within himself. And unable to fill this brokenness within, he finds that he has no mastery, no power over anything else as well. He is enslaved by the Evil One and by all creatures. This is the experience of sin. We are addicted to things which we are meant to serve us. Be it drugs, alcohol, our mobile phones or anything else, we can be enslaved by all kinds of creatures.
With the incarnation, when the Son of God becomes man, there is already a new healing that takes place. In one man, God and man are perfectly united. We find him walking with perfect freedom and love in this world. And finally, he does what he alone could do. He takes the sins of the world, yours and mine, upon himself and atones for our sin on the Cross. All of this he does by the power of the Spirit of God that fills his humanity. And finally, forty days after the Resurrection, he ascends back to the Father.
Which brings us to the second point. Heaven is not a place, like the physical places we deal with – God is Spirit, he does not occupy space like we do. Furthermore, God is the creator of all the world. Which means he is not a part of the world like we are. Heaven is a metaphor for the domain of God. And God, who sits in the heavens, rules over all his creation. His power extends to all things. He is present to all things.
As Jesus is seated at God’s right hand, he now commands fully with the power of God. What was begun in the incarnation with one man, starts now being fulfilled for the rest of humanity. But wasn’t the Son of God present with the Father before the incarnation? And didn’t God rule everything before? What has changed?
A lot, really. In Jesus, man is united with God. This is completely new. Jesus did not shed his humanity when he ascended to the Father. He remains the Son of God, from before the incarnation but now he also remains the Son of Mary and Son of Man. He shares his human nature with us. As the Son of Man, he is the head of his Body, the Church. Where the Head goes, the Body follows. What happens to the Head, happens in the Body. Jesus has seated us with him in the heavenly places. We are secure in Christ. I mention this because sometimes, some Catholics can live in two ends of a spectrum. There are those who live with great scruples, as if God is intent on sending them to hell. No, in Christ, we have been placed securely in the heavens. Does that mean we can never lose our salvation? No. That’s the terrible power of our freedom. We can refuse God’s action in our lives and choose to not live with him – but more on that in a moment.
Everything that Jesus accomplished for us, he did through his humanity. As man, the second Adam has won the power we so easily squandered at Creation. In Jesus, man’s lost dignity has been restored. This is what he said to the apostles after the resurrection. “All power in heaven and on earth has been given me.” (Matt 28:18)
Which naturally leads to the question. If Jesus has destroyed the power of the Evil One on the Cross, why is there still so much evil and sin in the world? Which brings us to the third point. The promise of the Spirit. God will not save us or save the world without our participation. This is the respect that God has for our freedom. But when the Spirit comes, he reproduces in us, the pattern of Christ’s life. Remember, that all of sin and evil breaks out into the world as Adam rebels and loses this unity with himself. He unites us to God and heals our nature. The same Spirit through which Jesus destroyed the power of death on the Cross and was raised up on the third day, is the one who is given to us, to destroy the power of death in our lives.
Jesus said to his disciples, “I will not leave you orphans.” While Jesus walked this earth, he could be present only to a few people, at a particular time. But through the Spirit, Jesus dwells with us in a new way. With the Spirit come the Father and the Son. He has not abandoned us. Whatever we might face in life, Christ is close to us. Whether we are afraid of something facing us at work, a serious health scare, a financial loss, or whatever it may be – God is present with us, in the Holy Spirit. When we find ourselves powerless in front of our sins, the Spirit comes to our aid. The Holy Spirit brings about the victory of the Cross in our lives, if we will let him.
Even as we are healed, there is another work we have to do. We have to continue the work of Christ in the world and bring about its healing and freedom from the powers of darkness. This is the dignity of our calling. This is the glory that God wants to give us as his sons and daughters. And to the extent that Jesus said we will do even greater things than he himself did (John 14:12). Which is why the angels admonish the disciples, ‘Why stand here, looking up at the sky?’ There is work to be done. This work can be painful, sometimes frustrating, even hopeless. But we have to remember that the victory has already been won. We are called to simply be faithful and trust the work of the Spirit. Christ awaits at God’s right hand for all his enemies to be made a footstool at his feet. He has won his victory. He is waiting for ours to be accomplished. When we know this, we can say with St Paul –
If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-38)
This is the grace of this feast. We await it in fullness with Pentecost.