The Resurrection and the Ascension initiate the triumph of goodness over, evil, sin and death on a cosmic scale. Does this victory reach down to us? At certain points of history, the successes and victories of good people have made the lives of many people better in very concrete ways. The Letter to the Ephesians states that as He ascended He gave us gifts (Eph 4:10). Are we affected by the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus?

Actually, we are affected in a more personal and long-lasting way – in fact, eternally. According to Thomas Aquinas, the victory of Jesus is also our victory. Thomas explains that Jesus’ Ascension into heaven does not mean His absence in our lives: “Christ’s Ascension to heaven brought about our loss of his bodily presence, but it gave us something more useful” (3a. 57, 1, ad 3).  

Jesus’ physical absence does not mean that He is not with us, as Thomas asserts, “The Ascension removed Christ’s bodily presence from the faithful, but not the presence of His divinity” (3a. 57, 1 ad 3). The divinity of Jesus reaches in a deeper way, even than His human presence did. Jesus promised the apostles, as He ascended: “Behold I am with you even to the consummation of the world” (Mt 28:20).

Our relationship with Jesus continues through faith. Thomas affirms that Jesus’ ascended “in order to increase our faith, which is of things not seen” (3a. 57, 1 ad 3).  

Many people who saw Jesus physically did not accept Him for who He was. For example, when Jesus promised He would give them His flesh to eat, many of His disciples “walked with Him no more” (Jn 6:59). Even those who interacted with Jesus, had to go beyond His evident humanity. Jesus told the apostle Thomas when He showed him His risen body: “You believe because you have seen. Blessed are those who do not see and yet believe” (Jn 20:29). 

If, as the Letter to the Hebrews declare “faith is the assurance of things not seen” (Heb 11:1), we need grace to help us go beyond what is physically obvious. While our fundamental faith in Jesus’ identity grows, our belief in His presence in the here and now challenges and difficulties of life must also grow.

At times, what we believe is not only not seen but there may be indications of the opposite. To believe means that we make the effort to believe even when we struggle with our emotions which pull us to the opposite, to think God has abandoned us. Even Saints have had to struggle with their fears that God is not present. St. Therese, in her spiritual autobiography, tells us how she constantly affirmed her faith during her last illness, making more acts of faith than she ever did in the rest of her life.

Thomas teaches that the Ascension “uplifts our hope.” Jesus promises: “If I go, I will prepare a place for you, I will come again and I will take you with Me that where I am, you also may be” (Jn 14:3). Thomas reflects: “By placing in heaven the human nature which He assumed, Christ gave us the hope of going there” (3a. 57, 1 ad 3).

Our hope to continue living after physical death changes the way we see life. When a person dies, many of us comfort each other with awkward suggestions of life after death, such as “She is at peace” or “He is with his wife.” People of different religions and even some people with little specific faith have an instinct that life doesn’t just end abruptly like an extinguished candle. There is an inner sense that a reward comes at the end of the race. We have a conviction that there is a meaning to the project of each human life. The Ascension is the ultimate assurance that these inner hopes are certain and even more than we expect.

Thomas asserts that the Ascension “directs the fervor of our charity to heavenly things” (3a. 57, 1 ad 3). The Letter to the Colossians instructs: “Seek the things that are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Mind the things that are above, not the things of earth” (Col 3:1-2). If we believe that “Jesus is Lord” than we believe that Jesus is in charge.

Does this mean that we are oblivious to the world around us? Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican document addressing “The Church and the Modern World,” makes it very clear that Christians have a responsibility to contribute to making the world a better place for all. In fact, we take the needs of others more seriously, measuring the lives and efforts of each person by an eternal value, not according to their usefulness to our own short term agendas.

The Holy Spirit leads us beyond our own restricted vision, as Thomas affirms: “Since the Holy Spirit is love drawing us up to heavenly things, the Lord said: ‘It is expedient for you that I go; for if I do not go, the Paraclete will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you’” (Jn 16:7) (3a. 57, 1 ad 3).

When Jesus was physically present, His body was in one specific place. Jesus’ physical absence opens us to the activity of the Spirit, and even the Father and Jesus, in all locations. Thomas recalls the words of Augustine: “You cannot receive the Spirit, so long as you persist in knowing Christ according to the flesh. When Christ withdrew in body, not only the Holy Ghost, but both Father and Son were present with the disciples spiritually” (Augustine, Treatise on the Gospel of John, 94).

Not only is Jesus not absent from us but He is present with us along with the Father and the Spirit.

Thomas observes that the Ascension gives us a greater appreciation of Jesus: “Our reverence for Him is increased, since we no longer deem Him an earthly man but the God of heaven” (3a. 57, 6). Paul asserts: “Even if we once judged Christ by human standards, we do so no longer” (2 Cor 5:16).

Jesus’ Passion and death deliver us from sin. The Resurrection of Jesus is the promise that our bodies will rise from the dead. Thomas uses the example of fire that first heats what is closest and then what is further away. According to this principle, “The Word of God first bestows immortal life upon that body which is naturally united with Himself and through it works the resurrection in all other bodies” (3a. 56, 1).

The principles that Thomas has elaborated, relating Christ’s Resurrection to our own, are also applied to the Ascension.

The Ascension of Jesus promises that we will also be united with Him in heaven.

Thomas affirms: “Christ’s Passion is the cause of our ascending to heaven, properly speaking, by removing the hindrance which is sin, and also by way of merit; whereas Christ’s Ascension is the direct cause of our ascension by His beginning it in Him, who is our Head, with whom the members must be united” (3a. 57, 6 ad 2).

Thomas says: “He prepared the way for our ascent into heaven, as He said ‘I go to prepare a place for you’” (3a. 57. 6). In what way did He prepare a place for us? Thomas responds: “Since He is our Head, the members must follow where the Head is gone: He said ‘Where I am, you also may be’” (Jn 14:3). (3a. 57, 6).

Thomas picks up on the words of the Letter to the Ephesians, “Ascending on high, He led captivity captive. Thomas comments: “… captives indeed of a happy taking, since they were acquired by His victory” (3a. 57, 6).

Christ acts as our intercessor before the Father: “As the high-priest under the Old Testament entered the holy place to stand before God for the people, so also Christ entered heaven, ‘to make intercession for us’ (Heb 7:25)” (3a. 57, 6).

The presence of Christ’s humanity in heaven, itself, is an eternal intercession for humanity, as Thomas shows:

Because the showing of Himself in the human nature which He took with Him to heaven is a pleading for us; so that the very reason that God so exalted human nature in Christ, He may take pity on them for whom the Son of God took human nature (3a. 57, 6).

Jesus, as our Lord, bestows gifts upon us: “Being established as God and Lord in His heavenly seat, He might send gifts upon us: ‘He ascended above all the heavens that He might fill all things… with His gifts’” (Eph 4:10-11) (3a. 57, 6).

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P. References to the Summa Theologiae give the part of the Summa, the question and the article. If the reference is a response to an objection that Thomas has raised, the reference will indicate “ad,” meaning “to” the objection. This reference is found in the third part of the Summa, questions 48 and 57 and various articles.

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