The Ascension of the Lord
By: Rev. Thomas J. Gerrard
It makes the whole difference to this life whether or not we live in relationship to the next. We stand like those men of Galilee looking up into heaven. We wonder whether that is to be a future reward for us. The revelation is given to us as it was given to the men of Galilee, that Jesus will come again and judge the world, and those of us who have done good shall go into everlasting life. According as we receive that revelation, so will our whole life be affected.
The revelation is made to us in a way in which we can apprehend it. There is a local change of our Lord’s glorified humanity. It is of no vital significance whether we think of this change after the manner of the old astronomy or the new. It is a passing away from this earth to some place outside of it. If we think of heaven at all we must think of it in a human way. St. Paul says: “He that descended is the same also that ascended above all the heavens.” These words have both a material and a spiritual value. They signify the bodily change of place. They signify also the high dignity which our Lord assumed when He passed away from this earth. And it is this spiritual value which matters most. Our Lord was exalted above all the choirs of angels. He sits on the right hand of the Father. As God, He is equal to the Father. As man He is exalted above every other creature.
It is the same also with regard to His being “taken up.” The words have both a material and spiritual value. It was by His own Divine power that Our Lord raised Himself from the dead. By the same Divine power, He ascended into heaven. That is, He entered into the fullness of His power as the perfect Head of all creatures. He entered into the Holy of holies in order that, as the perfect Mediator, He might stand nearest the throne of God. Nay, being God Himself, He sat upon the throne of God, whence He might distribute the divine graces on the people whom He had died to save.
Therefore, it is necessary that we exercise our hope and look forward to our own future life. By our faith we are certain of Christ’s Ascension. By hope we trust that He will give us all the graces needful for our ascension, and then finally receive us into His glory. Recognizing our Lord as at once our God and our Mediator, we give Him a supreme adoration and depend upon Him absolutely for a call to that higher destiny and for all the means of attaining it.
And, what is this beatitude to which He calls us? It is the immediate vision of God. “We see now through a glass in a dark manner, but then, face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know even as I am known.” The call of grace in this life is to be the adopted sons of God. And if we are sons, then we are heirs also. What the face-to-face vision exactly is we can but dimly guess. We can apprehend it even though we cannot comprehend it. “Dearly beloved, we are now the sons of God; and it hath not yet appeared what we shall be. We know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like to Him: because we shall see Him as He is.”
Of course, such a sight of God is beyond our natural powers. God alone can gaze upon the Divine essence naturally. If, therefore, we are to gaze upon it, our natures will have to be exalted and purified by a supernatural light. That will be our ascension into heaven. Our ascension will also have its material and spiritual value. The spiritual value will be this pouring in upon our natures of a supernatural light. Thus, our natures will be in a way deified, for they will participate in the Divine Nature. “When He shall appear, we shall be like to Him.”
This supernatural likeness to God has two elements. First, our vision of God is like God’s vision of Himself, inasmuch as it is an act of direct knowledge of God. Secondly, it is a likeness to His, inasmuch as it is brought about by the infusion of light from the Divine Intellect. We are not made identical with God, as the Buddhists claim. We remain infinitely distinct from Him. Thus does the blessed spirit share in God’s own happiness. And that is how, if we love, serve and praise God on this earth, we shall afterwards ascend and be forever happy with Him in the next world. The Life of God is everlasting. If we participate in the essence of that Life, then our life of happiness must be ever-lasting.
Nor is this sight of God merely an intellectual enjoyment. That which is known is also loved. Our happiness in heaven would be incomplete were it not that we could also participate in the Divine Love and Holiness. Just as our understanding will be illumined supernaturally by a ray of the Divine Wisdom, so will our love be raised to a higher plane of equal excellence. Thus, the thrill of love which we shall experience will be of the same kind as the Love with which God loves Himself. The light of glory raises the intelligence above all the powers of nature. So also does the energy of Divine Love exalt the will above all its natural powers.
For what is it that the soul loves in its final happiness? It is the Supreme Good. It is the most lovable object which can be. To enjoy such an object in the way God wishes us to enjoy it we need His Will in a special way to energize our wills. Thus is the human will, whilst remaining infinitely distinct from the supreme Good, brought into the most intimate union with it.
St. Paul says: “He who is joined to the Lord is one spirit.” Hence, we have scriptural authority for speaking of this love-union of the soul with God as a “deification.” The human will is, as it were, divinized. Endowed with this extra form, glory and power, it attains to that all-satisfying state which is such a contrast to this life on earth, namely, the impossibility of committing sin. “He that shall overcome, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God; and he shall go out no more.”
Further, this absolute exclusion of sin implies also the exclusion of all pain which is the consequence of sin. First, there will be no compunction or sorrow for sin. All that will have been accomplished either on earth or in purgatory. “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.” Secondly, there can never be that fear of death, for death is the punishment of sin. Thirdly, there will be no need to do any works of penance. The works of penance are for the reforming of the will, for the putting off of old habits and the putting on of new. But in heaven the will is energized to its utmost capacity for good. Therefore, “death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away.”
At this point a difficulty suggests itself. If all those who attain to the Beatific Vision receive the same objective reward, where does the justice come in? should there not be a difference between those who have led saintly lives and those who have been content with merely keeping the Commandments or who have repented only at the last? On the other hand, if there is a difference in the joys of the blessed, will not those who receive less feel the want when they observe the joy of those who receive more?
Let us answer at once that there is a difference between the joys of the blessed. All receive the same objective reward, namely, the vision of God face to face. But each one enjoys according to the merits which he has gained for himself while on earth. “For the Son of Man shall come in the glory of His Father with His angels” and then will He render to every man according to his works.” And again: “Every man shall receive his own reward, according to his own labor.” It is all a question of haw his life has been spent and how much merit has been gained. “He who sows sparingly shall also reap sparingly; and he who sows in blessings shall also reap in blessings.”
Bearing this in mind, that whilst the object of our joy is the same, our subjective appreciation of the same is different, we can apply to the question other scriptural texts. “In My Father’s house there are many mansions.” That means we shall never exhaust the beauties of the Beatific Vision. Those souls, however, who have the most merits will have a keener insight into these beauties. Again, we have the words of St. Paul: “For star differs from star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead.”
But will not this difference of happiness amongst the blessed be a source of some unhappiness? Will it not cause envy and jealousy? No. And the reason is because each soul will have all the happiness which it is capable of enjoying. It is as if there were a number of vases of different sizes, all filled with water. The smallest does not complain because it cannot hold as much as the largest. If the smallest is full, its function is complete, and there is nothing wanting to it. Or, again, this aspect of the life of the blessed may be likened to the satiety caused by bodily food. A number of people sit down to a banquet. All have equally enough, but all do not eat the same amount of food. Each one takes what suits his appetite. So is it with the Blessed in heaven. Each one drinks of the torrent of pleasure to his full satisfaction. He sees God face to face. That is the essence of his happiness. But the sight sets free that intellectual appetite which we call the will, the appetite towards the good seen by the intelligence. And the energy of that appetite we call love.
We take our stand then with the men of Galilee and we listen to the voice which they heard: “This Jesus who is taken up from you into heaven shall so come as you have seen Him going into heaven.” He had ascended in the glory of the Father. He will come again in the glory of the Father and He will bring His angels with Him. The purpose of His coming will be to render to every man according to his works and to distribute to every man according to his own labor.
Thus, the revelation of heaven becomes one of the most powerful motives for living our life to the utmost possible degree of spiritual richness. The revelation of hell acts chiefly as a deterrent from mortal sin. The fear of God is but the beginning of wisdom. But the revelation of heaven acts not only as a deterrent from mortal sin, but also as a deterrent from venial sin, and as an incentive to all possible good works. Here we can see that there are different degrees of glory and happiness. Here we can strive to obtain ever a higher and higher degree of glory and happiness. It is well to abstain from sin for fear of a heavenly Father’s chastisement. It is better to abstain from sin by reason of a desire of a heavenly Father’s rewards. It is best of all to abstain from sin because we love God. The revelation of heaven as given to us on Ascension Day offers us the highest motive for the highest living. There, we get a dim glimpse of the eternal home where the Blessed Trinity enjoy their mutual happiness eternally. We see through the veil of analogy that home of happiness whence came the Son of God to live in this world, the home whither He wished to take us. We learn that He did this out of love. Then we love Him because He first loved us.