“For after his Resurrection, he plainly appeared to all his disciples, and was taken up to heaven in their sight, that he might make us sharers in his divinity.” These words come from today’s Preface, the prayer that the priest recites or sings immediately before we sing the Sanctus, the “Holy, holy, holy.” They contain both something familiar and something surprising. First, there is the plain truth of something we already know: After our Lord rose from the dead, He appeared to His disciples, and after 40 days, ascended into Heaven, as we recite in the Creed each Sunday.
But then we find something incredible: Christ ascended into Heaven “that He might make us sharers in His divinity.” To be sharers in Christ’s divinity means that at Christ’s ascension, human nature is so ennobled, is raised so high, that we can take part not only in Christ’s perfect human nature, but even that we might – we should tremble to say it – be made into God.
This is an astounding claim. It almost seems heretical, blasphemous even – that Christ’s ascending into Heaven would make us partake in His divinity, would make us into God. But yet for centuries the Roman Rite has declared this beautiful truth. There is another prayer from today’s Mass that reinforces this incredible claim, this time found within the Roman Canon, the prayer that the priest recites as he consecrates the bread and wine. On the greatest feasts of the Church’s year this prayer is modified slightly to commemorate the particular events of salvation history that are being celebrated. In this case, if you listen attentively, you will hear: “Celebrating the most sacred day on which your Only Begotten Son, our Lord, placed at the right hand of your glory our weak human nature, which he had united to himself …”
At the right hand of God, on Christ’s heavenly throne where He reigns as King of Heaven and Earth, is something of us, our weak human nature. Christ assumed that weak human nature at His incarnation, and in that human nature He suffered, died, and rose for us, winning for us eternal life and the forgiveness of our sins. That part of us that is His real human nature is now there in Heaven.
Think of that – something of you is already there in Heaven, rejoicing with all the angels. Actually, it is more than this: Something of you is united to God Himself in Heaven; something of you is part of what all those saints and angels are praising for ages unending. Christ has raised weak human nature higher even than the angels. This is an incredible thought – a great wonder!
We could think of the Lord’s Ascension as a promise of immortality to come, and of course it is, but it is also a promise for the here and now. In this very life, on this very day, it is possible for us to share in Christ’s eternal victory celebration in Heaven. This is a great motivation to fight against sin and temptation. We know that we can be victorious over the power of Satan because we already are. Our weak human nature is already there, united to God’s infinite glory in Heaven.
Just as something of us is already there in Heaven, something of Him is still here in those of us who have been transformed into His image and likeness by Baptism and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and who are nourished by receiving His most holy Body and Blood, which makes His presence in us grow from day to day. This is one of the distinctive aspects of Catholic teaching. The Church has a much, much more positive vision of human nature than does Protestant theology. Martin Luther taught that the Christian is simul justus et pecator, at once a sinner and also saved. For him, even in Heaven man’s human nature is still corrupted by the fall from grace inherited from the original sin of Adam and Eve.
But this is not what we believe. The Ascension shows us that man is destined – should he accept God’s grace and live in accord with it throughout his life – for divinity, not for being merely a snow-covered dung heap, as Luther described those who were redeemed but at their core still sinful. People frequently say things like, “all religions fundamentally believe the same thing,” or that different forms of Christianity are all really close in what they believe. That is not true, and is the error of indifferentism. In this case, we have two radically different visions of who men and women are and what we are meant to become between Protestant and Catholic teaching.
This is not just a wonderful thing to consider – God’s becoming man and man’s becoming God – but actually has practical consequences for us. We are different because of this promise. In the second reading, we heard that God the Father, having seated the Son at His right hand, “put all things beneath His feet” (Eph 1). Christ is not just a victor like a man who has won a race and is entitled to a prize; He is the conquering general who totally despoils the enemy, taking all his possessions and territory. He has crushed His enemies beneath His feet.
If we are meant to become partakers in Christ’s divinity, then we are meant to have this victory as well. But victory over what? Surely this is not meant to give us the right to oppress those who do not believe in the Lord’s name. Instead, we are promised victory over sin and death. Rather than being a religion that merely proposes a bunch of difficult and depressing rules, Catholicism offers us the possibility of becoming what we are truly meant to be – sons and daughters of God made in His image and likeness. We are promised freedom from the habits and vices that would otherwise enslave us. Rather than being slaves to sin – and thus to eternal death – we are promised the freedom that comes from victory over sin.
This is why the Lord promises the Apostles today, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” You will receive power. While rejoicing in the promise held out to us by our Lord’s Ascension, we are already anticipating the glory of next Sunday’s great feast, Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit will come to give us the power that we need to bring about this victory in our life.
After the Lord’s Ascension, the Apostles went back to the upper room, that same place where they celebrated the Lord’s Last Supper on Holy Thursday, to pray with Mary as they waited for that power of the Holy Spirit. It was the first novena, nine days of prayer from Ascension Thursday to Pentecost Sunday. This week, we too should draw close to the Blessed Mother as we pray for the power of the Holy Spirit that we desire to receive at Pentecost. This would be a great time to brush the dust off our Catechisms and consider the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Which of those gifts do you particularly need at this point in your life to crush sin below your feet as our ascended Lord does today?
The Ascension shows us the power of a life transformed by grace, the great promise that is ours as the Lord’s disciples. He holds out the promise of not just being good enough, but of being partakers in His own divine nature by triumphing over sin – of becoming like God. No promise is greater, and no victory is sweeter.