The Ascension of Jesus to heaven is one of the incomprehensible mysteries in Christianity that, when considered, can lead to perplexity or to praise. Blessed John Henry Newman bids us rejoice in the mystery, giving praise and thanks to God. We have been allowed to glimpse at these mysteries, to consider them, and to rejoice in them.
Regarding the mystery of Christ’s ascension, Newman drew out various truths from this dogma of faith in the sermon, Mysteries in Religion. Years later, after he had become Catholic, he offered additional observations in his Meditations and Devotions.
He begins: “First, Christ’s Ascension to the right hand of God is marvellous, because it is a sure token that heaven is a certain fixed place, and not a mere state. That bodily presence of the Saviour which the Apostles handled is not here; it is elsewhere,—it is in heaven.” This is of great importance because it indicates that heaven is a place rather than a state of blessedness, as many modernists would assert and, as St. John insisted, Christ came in the flesh.
Christians believe that Christ ascended into heaven and, if considered, realize that this seems at odds with the structure of the physical world as it is known. This problem cannot be solved, and even less can revelation be dismissed.
Secondly, Newman writes that Christ, like the Mosaic High Priest, enters the sanctuary to offer atonement. “We have such an High Priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens; a Minister of the Sanctuary, and of the true Tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man.” [Heb. ix. 12, 24, 25; vii. 24, 25; viii. 1, 2.]” But what does this mean – that Christ offers intercession for us? Christ is the type of the High Priest. Scripture only offers the type. It veils the reality and speaks in figures. Christ is within the veil and, before Him, the Seraphim veil their faces. We do not understand what it means that He pleads His sacrifice and by His perpetual intercession for us.
Yet “We will not neglect it, because we do not understand it. We will hold it as a Mystery, or (what was anciently called) a Truth Sacramental; that is, a high invisible grace lodged in an outward form, a precious possession to be piously and thankfully guarded for the sake of the heavenly reality contained in it.” The truth is that the Christ intercedes before the Father.
Thirdly, Jesus tells the disciples that ‘a little while and He will leave them, and a little while longer and He will come back.’ There are hidden reasons for His going that the Spirit may come that we fail to understand, and Newman invites us to worship in silence.
He concludes with an acknowledgment of a general principle for the believer: “what is nobler, what is more elevating and transporting, than the generosity of heart which risks everything on God’s word, dares the powers of evil to their worst efforts, and repels the illusions of sense and the artifices of reason, by confidence in the Truth of Him who has ascended to the right hand of the Majesty on high?” Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.
In our world today, reasoning understood as modern science seems to have the upper hand. As Pope emeritus Benedict XVI has eloquently explained, people often reduce knowledge to scientific reason. Do we see through this reduction of knowledge? The Christian does not shun reason, but when reason does not explain revealed truths, he should bow before the mystery and adore. We are to be as little children and, as little children, we have a filial trust in things shown to us through the eyes of faith. Let us marvel at this great mystery of Christ, bearing His wounds which Thomas saw, rising to His Father and our Father, to prepare a place for us.