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What the Ascension teaches us about our bodies

Public Domain
The Ascension by-Salvador Dali, 1958
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Jesus' prayer that he be glorified might be better translated "clarified" ...

“Isn’t it great that we can’t see Jesus anymore? That’s why we make the Ascension of the Lord a holy day of obligation,” said no one, ever.

Before his passion, death, and resurrection, Jesus taught the apostles that it will be better that he go away from them, and that the Holy Spirit would be given them, to guide them from this life to the next. In his great priestly prayer of John 17, he prays to our Heavenly Father, “…glorify your son.”

What’s that mean, and what’s it to do with the Ascension? In English, we think of “glory” as some kind of very grand and enviable fame. But in the Greek of the New Testament, glory is “doxa”—a kind of “shining forth”, an illuminating revelation. Reading the Gospel of John in Saint Jerome’s Latin, the verb “glorify” is rendered as “clarify.” That’s a great help to understanding the prayer of Jesus in John 17, and a great help in understanding the importance of the Ascension.

Clarity is closely related to humility, when humility is understood as telling the truth—the shameful truth about ourselves and the wonderful truth about God. Truly, we are fallen, we are sinners; truly God is all-holy; most wonderfully true: God is merciful and fiercely desires to save us from our sin.

How can we “clarify” those truths, so that they might shine forth, illuminating human sinfulness and divine holiness?

If you want to know what humans are really like, look at Christ crucified. Picture us flinging that broken body at the feet of God and yelling, “This is what we think of your son! This is what we think of nature and grace and love and human flesh!” Then picture our Heavenly Father lifting up Christ Risen, declaring, “This is what I think of my son! And this is what I think of human flesh! And this is what I think of nature and grace and my covenant with you!” If we can see that, then the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place.

God loves his human creatures so much that he chooses to save us from sin at a terrible cost to himself, and to save the whole human person, body and soul, through the passion, death and resurrection of his Christ. That’s why it makes perfect sense for the Word-made-flesh to transcend the limits of this world, so that humanity-joined-to-divinity may be now eternally present before the throne of God.

And once we see that, we can see that speaking of the Ascension requires us to speak in the same breath of the Assumption of Mary. Mary is the perfect creature, made in the image and likeness of God, full of grace, fully cooperating with the Holy Spirit. Mary assumed into Heaven is what a human person looks like when cooperating with the saving work of the incarnate Word-of-the-Father. Mary assumed into Heaven illustrates what we human creatures are supposed to look like in the next life if we live this life well.

The Ascension of Jesus is an inarguable reminder that this earthly life, this “vale of tears”, is not our true home, has no final claim on us, and cannot merit our obedience nor reward our loyalty. We are made for more, so much more, than this passing world can give us! Alas—it seems that we can scarcely believe in the glory God wishes to share with us. C.S Lewis laments:

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

What, then, are we to do? We would do well to recall the words of the Angelus: “Pray for us O holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.”

Our Lord assured the apostles and us that he was going ahead of us, to our true home, to prepare a place for us. He promised us it would be better for us if he went ahead of us for a little while. Meanwhile, we are not left orphans. On the contrary, we are provided for, equipped for struggle and triumph by the anointing of the Holy Spirit. For the love of God, may we live a life that is worthy of our calling!

When I write next, I will speak of an aspect of the spiritual life that is often overlooked. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

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