It is necessary, as Fr. Schineller, S.J. points out in his recent post, that the Ascension be seen as God’s “act of faith in us,” not a time to be gazing skyward or backward. St. Augustine gets to the ground of this reality in The City of God Book XVIII, Chapter 53, when he says of the Parousia, citing Acts 1:6f, “it is usual to ask at this point, ‘When will this happen?’ But this question is entirely inappropriate. For had it been of profit to us to know the answer to it, who better to tell us than the Master, God himself, when the disciples asked him? For they were not silent on this matter when they were with Him; on the contrary, they asked Him directly, saying, ‘Lord, wilt thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ But He said, ‘It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father has put in His own power.’” Augustine goes on to say, “in vain, therefore, do we strive to compute and define the number of years that remain in this world”; it might be an intriguing past-time, but pulls us away from the many tasks of the Church at hand.
On the other hand, Augustine returns to this passage in Book XX, Chapter 30, on the last page of his massive tome, as he considers the reality of Christ’s return – without calculating dates! – as “prefiguring the eternal rest not only of the Spirit, but of the body also.” Augustine speaks specifically of our bodily reality, but it is true also of Jesus, “who will return in the same way.”This bodily reality of Jesus, which the disciples gaze at in the Ascension narrative at the beginning of Acts, prefigures the bodily return of Jesus. More than that, it speaks to the bodily reality of Jesus even now. Last year, I cited Douglas Farrow’s Ascension and Ecclesia on this very issue: the particularity of the Risen Lord. This seems such a significant point to me, that we serve and await not a cosmic or universalized principle, but the Risen Lord, who is present to us in the Scriptures, the Church and the Eucharist. Our task as Christians seems that much more grounded in light of the Ascension. T.F. Torrance in Royal Priesthood writes, “to demythologize the ascension (which means of course that it must first of all be mythologised) is to dehumanize Christ, and to dehumanize Christ is to make the Gospel of no relevance to humanity, but to turn it into an inhospitable and inhuman abstraction” (cited in Ascension and Ecclesia, 265). Jesus is not an abstraction; he has ascended to the Lord, as Ephesians 1:17-23 stresses. Until Christ himself returns, our task is here on earth, as a passage from Ephesians, 4:12, notes: “for building up the body of Christ.” And we are a part of the body of Christ here on earth because he is, indeed, still real and actual, the head of the body (Ephes. 4:15). We ought to work, therefore, “with all humility and gentleness” (Ephes. 4:2), according to the gifts we have been given (Ephes. 4:7-14). But with our work firmly grounded in this world, we await the return of Jesus and we know that he will return, the one who shared in our humanity in every way but sin, and who models for us the life in the glory of the resurrected body.
John W. Martens