Vol. XIX, No. 3
The Meaning of the Ascension
Pope Francis — Catechesis on the Creed
The Ascension was the topic of Pope Francis’s continuing catechesis on the Creed for the Year of Faith at his Wednesday audience on April 17. More than 50,000 people attended.
Following is a translation of his address, as provided by Zenit, with very minor editorial changes. zenit.org/en/articles/on-christ-s-ascension
Dear Brothers and Sisters, good morning.
In the Creed we find the affirmation that Jesus “ascended into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” Jesus’ earthly life culminated with the event of the Ascension, namely, when He passed from this world to the Father and was raised to His right hand. What is the meaning of this event? What are its consequences for our life? What does it mean to contemplate Jesus seated at the right hand of the Father? We will let ourselves be guided on this by the evangelist Luke.
We will start from the moment in which Jesus decided to undertake His last pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Saint Luke notes: “When the days drew near for Him to be received up, He set His face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). While He “ascends” to the Holy City, where His “exodus” from this life will be accomplished, Jesus already sees the goal, Heaven, but He knows well that the way that will take Him to the glory of the Father passes through the Cross, through obedience to the divine plan of love for humanity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “The lifting up of Jesus on the cross signifies and announces His lifting up by His Ascension into heaven” (n. 662). In our Christian life, we must also understand very clearly that to enter into the glory of God exacts daily fidelity to His will, even when it requires sacrifice, when it requires at times that we change our plans. Jesus’ Ascension took place concretely on the Mount of Olives, close to the place where He withdrew in prayer before the Passion to remain in profound union with the Father: once again we see that prayer gives us the grace to live faithfully according to God’s plan.
At the end of his Gospel, Saint Luke recounts the event of the Ascension in a very synthetic way. Jesus leads His disciples “out as far as Bethany, and lifting up His hands He blessed them. While He blessed them, He parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. They worshipped Him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:50-53). So says Saint Luke. I would like to note two elements of the account. First of all, during the Ascension, Jesus carries out the priestly gesture of blessing, and the disciples certainly express their faith with their prostration, kneeling and bowing their head. This is an important first point: Jesus is the one and eternal Priest who, with His Passion, went through death and the sepulcher and rose and ascended to Heaven; He is beside God the Father, where He intercedes forever in our favor (cf. Hebrews 9:24). As Saint John states in his First Letter, He is our advocate: how beautiful it is to hear this. When one is called by a judge or is called to trial, the first thing he does is look for an advocate to defend him. We have One who always defends us. He defends us from the insidiousness of the Devil, He defends us from ourselves, from our sins! Dear brothers and sisters, we have this advocate: we must not be afraid to go to Him to ask for forgiveness, to ask for His blessing, to ask Him for mercy. He always forgives us, He is our advocate: He always defends us. Do not forget this!
Hence Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven makes us know this very consoling reality for our journey: in Christ, true God and true man, our humanity has been carried to God; He opened the way for us; He is as the head of a roped party when climbing a mountain, who arrives at the summit and attracts us to Himself, leading us to God. If we entrust our life to Him, if we let ourselves be guided by Him, we are certain of being in safe hands, in the hands of our Savior, in the hands of our advocate.
A second element: Saint Luke says that the Apostles, after seeing Jesus go up to Heaven, returned to Jerusalem “with great joy.” This seems somewhat strange to us. In general, when we are separated from our relatives, our friends, for a definitive departure and above all because of death, there is a natural sadness in us, because we will no longer see their face, we will no longer hear their voice, we will no longer be able to enjoy their affection, their presence. Instead, the evangelist stresses the profound joy of the Apostles. But how is this possible? Precisely because, with the look of faith, they understood that, although removed from their eyes, Jesus always stays with them, He does not abandon them and, in the glory of the Father, He sustains them, guides them and intercedes for them.
Saint Luke recounts the event of the Ascension also at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, to underscore that this event is as the ring that fastens and links Jesus’ earthly life to that of the Church. Here Saint Luke also refers to the cloud which took Jesus out of the sight of the disciples, who remained gazing at Christ who ascended to the Father (cf. Acts 1:9-10). Then two men stood by them in white robes, who invited them not to remain standing looking into heaven, but to nourish their life and their witness of the certainty that Jesus will return in the same way as they saw Him go into heaven (cf. Acts 1:10-11). It is, in fact, the invitation to begin from the contemplation of the Lordship of Christ, to have from Him the strength to bring the Gospel and witness to it in everyday life: to contemplate and to act, to pray and to work, Saint Benedict teaches, both are necessary in our life as Christians.
Dear Brothers and Sisters, the Ascension does not indicate Jesus’ absence, but it tells us that He is alive and in our midst in a new way; He is no longer in a specific place of the world as He was before the Ascension; now He is in the dominion of God, present in all space and time, close to each one of us. We are never alone in our life: the crucified and risen Lord guides us; with us there are so many brothers and sisters that in silence and hiddenness, in their family and working life, in their problems and difficulties, in their joys and hopes, live the faith daily and bring to the world the dominion of the love of God, in Christ Jesus risen, ascended to Heaven, an advocate for us.