St Thomas and Newman on the Ascension


“Why are you looking up to heaven?” (Acts 1:10-11) “They returned with great joy and were continually in the Temple blessing God. “(Luke 24:52-53)

The Ascension has a special role in Christian life. It marks the last time the apostles saw Jesus on earth. Often our last visits with people are surrounded by uncertainty or sadness, but we still cherish the memory of the last visit. For example, I last saw my father at Dulles Airport as he went off to war and never returned. I have an aging photograph of my younger brother and I standing with him at the gate prior to his boarding. But Our Lord’s departure did not involve uncertainty or death, but rather it was explained from the time of the last supper to the post-resurrection discourses. And the disciples left that place outside of Bethany with great joy. The gathered in prayer waiting to take on the world, indeed Christians embody in the deepest sense the phrase “contra mundum.”

Thomas Aquinas in his Short Catechism has a beautiful and succinct account of the Ascension, articulating the certainty of doctrine about the Lord’s departure. In the edition made available by Sophia Institute Press (ISBN 1-928832105), Ralph McInerny wrote the forward and pointed out “the sermons are remarkable for their clarity, their depth, their holiness, and wealth of scriptural quotations.” They were preached during the last year of his life (1273).

Thomas Aquinas explains the Ascension with three main points, each of which gets three points of exposition. His three main points are: (1) Christ’s Ascension was sublime; (2) it was reasonable; (3) it was profitable. In the first point, Aquinas explains how it is our Lord is “in the heavens.” It is sublime, because its meaning goes beyond whatever limited scientific accounts we may have about the structure of the cosmos. Wherever, however, God dwells, it is a mystery beyond our ken. It is reasonable, primarily because of Lord’s merit. For this blog, I would like to go over his elaboration for the third point – why Christ’s Ascension is profitable. There are three aspects to this account:

A. He is our Leader, so he shows us the way: “I go to prepare a place for you.” (Jn 14:8)
B. To increase our confidence in Him: He will now intercede for us (Heb. 7:25 and 1 Jn 2:1)
C. “To draw our hearts to Him: where your treasure is, there also is thy heart” (Matt. 6:21; see also Col. 3:1-2)

Each one of these points is worth pondering — for the certitude of faith and for the joy which each should inspire in us. No wonder the apostles left and headed back for Jerusalem “with great joy.” He is preparing a place for us. He is with the Father and interceding on our behalf! And our longing for the supreme good, the true treasure, grows daily.

Cardinal Newman in the second set of Parochial Sermons writes about the Ascension on “Mysteries in Religion” (click here)

He also speaks about the Ascension of Our Lord being “sublime” and argues that the event must remain shrouded in a mystery and serve as an incentive to “wonder and awe, humility, implicit faith and adoration.” He says that science is here not adequate to the task of plumbing the sublimity of the scripture concerning our Lord’s departure and return “from the clouds on high.” “Attempt to solve this prediction, according to the received theories of science, and you will discover their shallowness. They are unequal to the depth of the problem.” Rather we must understand the truth to be a Mystery, a “Truth Sacramental” or a “high invisible grace lodged in an outward form, a precious possession to be piously and thankfully guarded.” Hence, the apostles returned to the Temple and blessed God continually. The nub of the truth is the same one Aquinas stresses — it is expedient that the Lord departs, so as to be our advocate in heaven. “Christ went to intercede with the Father.” That is the simple truth.

Newman concludes: “We are in a world of mystery, with one bright light before us, sufficient for proceeding forward through all difficulties. Take away this light, and we are utterly wretched, — we know not where we are, how we are sustained, what will become of us, and of all that is dear to us, what we are to believe, and why we are in being.” But with it, he says, “we have all and abound.” I take Newman to be saying that, in a way, the Ascension is the focal point of our Christian life — for “It is enough that our Redeemer liveth; that he has been on earth and will come again. On Him we venture our all . . . .”

For Newman, a venture for God is the sign of a living faith. In a future blog I will discuss Newman’s sermon on the venture of faith (it is one of his very best).

So today let’s make resolutions to venture our lives, fortunes and honor for Jesus Christ. Between Easter and Pentecost, this day marks a literal high point of the apostolic experience, and a high point for our experience as the faithful believers who desire to be apostolic. No fading photograph, but a living memory, a high expectation, and a present advocate in Heaven. In all things, friends, “Cum Gaudio Magno.”.

Join us!

* indicates required