Lectionary 58, Gospel: Matthew 28: 16-20
Why did our Lord depart from us and ascend to the Father? This is a question which I have been asked several times and which Christians from the earliest days of the Church have asked. The question makes sense: after all, if Christ truly loves his people and desires salvation for them, would he not remain with us following his resurrection in order to accompany us? As St. Paul tells us “We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him” (Rom 6:9). Does it not seem natural that believers of all eras would say to him, if they could, what the disciples on the road to Emmaus said the very day of Jesus’ resurrection—“Stay with us, Lord!” (Luke 24:29).
Given all of that it is important to understand why the Lord departed from us and returned to the Father. He did so first so that his human existence which began with the incarnation might be brought to completion. When a person dies they are no longer physically present to us, though they may be present in spirit. It is true that when Jesus died he did in fact return to his earthly disciples briefly after the resurrection—a unique event in human history—to show himself as risen and to teach them further. But he then departed since it is not the course of human nature to continue on this earth after death; that is the existence of a ghost rather than a human being.
His ascension also has a “divine dimension”: returning to the Father was the natural state for the Son who in his human nature is known as Jesus, and so after his earthly life was complete and he had reassured the disciples that he was truly risen it is to be expected by his faithful that the Son should depart: “If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father” (John 14:28).
Going further we can say that Jesus ascended to the Father so that through faith we might freely choose to follow him and thereby come to the fullness of our own human dignity and come to salvation. Saint John addresses this in recording the words of the Lord when he spoke to Thomas: “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (John 20:29). Saint Paul agrees, writing to the Corinthians: “We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:6-7).
Using the God given gifts of our intellect and will we can make this free choice, freely doing the will of the Father like Christ, freely becoming more like Christ who perfectly obeys the will of the Father, and freely being transformed into the image and likeness of God in which we were originally made (Gen 1:26-27). Doing so we fulfill the will of our heavenly Father just as Jesus himself fulfilled God’s will through the mystery of his incarnation, death, and resurrection.
The Ascension of Christ thus brings before us the glorious mystery of Christ’s victory over sin and death and his exultation at the right hand of the Father. At the same time it invites us to use the beautiful gift of freedom, itself a reflection of God’s nature, to choose to draw ever nearer to the One in whose image we were made and to whose image we are destined to return. Today let us rejoice in the knowledge that Christ is risen and ascended to the Father–the Father to whom we too will return when our human nature is united to his divinity.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.