What Does "He Ascended" Mean?

(Homily for Ascension of the Lord)

C.S. Lewis tells about a lecturer who described evolution as the “very formula of the whole universe.” By evolution he meant, “Development, the slow struggle upwards and onwards from crude and inchoate beginnings to every increasing perfection and elaboration.”* Thus the oak tree develops from an acorn, the BMW from the Model T and contemporary art from rude scratching on cave walls.

However, as Lewis points out, there is a problem with this approach. The acorn itself comes from a full-grown oak. Both the Model T and the BMW come from something more perfect and more complex – the mind of a man, and a man of great genius. Likewise “the first pre-historic drawings come, not from earlier scratchings, but from the hand and brain of human beings whose hand and brain cannot be shown to have been in any way inferior to our own.” The man who first conceived the idea of making a picture took an incalculably greater step than any succeeding artist.

Our popular culture trains us to notice how greater things emerge from lesser. But we often fail to observe the opposite - that when we examine the matter carefully something greater pre-existed the development and made it possible. St. Paul underscores the latter perspective in his meditation on Jesus’ Ascension:

What does "he ascended" mean
except that he also descended
into the lower regions of the earth? (Eph 4:9)

Before Jesus could ascend, he first had to descend. In his case, he traveled the greatest distance: from Creator to creature, from Necessary to contingent, from Infinite to time-bound.**

Ancient stories tell about humans who were lowered to animal form. Artemis turned the unfortunate Actaeon into a stag. Circe used a drug to transform Odysseus’ men into swine. The experience was not pleasant. However, the distance between man and beast is microscopic in comparison to the distance between God and man.

We sometimes speak about immeasurable chasms. But really there is only one - the gap Jesus has bridged. St. Paul tells that he ascended to his place “on high” because he first lowered himself. He is “the one who fills all things in every way.” (Eph 1:23)

We are accustomed to picturing all life forms, including ourselves, as emerging from ancient microorganisms and our own planet, along with distant galaxies emerging from a primeval explosion - similar to the way an acorn develops into an oak. But what if the “acorn” – the whole system of nature - itself dropped from something greater? Namely, the one who ascended because he first descended?


*“Two Lectures”(God in the Dock p. 208). One can multiply examples. Each of us developed from a single cell and passed through stages which resemble lower animals. Still, the initial single cell had its origin in something greater - namely our two parents. The former view has been used to justify abortion. The latter perspective is the key to respect for human life from conception to natural death. Fr. Robert Spitzer argues “we must accord personhood, unconditional dignity, and inalienable rights to all beings of human origin.” We should also note that modern scientists have discredited the old textbook drawings of the human embryo recapitulating evolution. (See Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells, Ph. D.)

**While some exegetes think this verse refers to descent into the regions of the dead (“he descended into hell” cf. I Pt 3:19) it is more probable that it describes Christ’s Incarnation and earthly life. (See: Jerome Biblical Commentary)

Versión Castellana

From the Archives (Ascension Homilies):

2015 (Year B): Disciple Makers Week 7: Be Part of the Story
2014 (Year A): Journey to Hope Week 7
2013 (Year C): The Way He Opened
2012 (Year B): He Took Prisoners Captive
2011 (Year A): The Personal Center
2010 (Year C): Disappear vs. Leave
2009 (Year B): What Good-Bye Means
2008 (Year A): Ascension Quotes
2007 (Year C): Separation of Church and State
2006 (Year B): Whoever Believes and is Baptized
2005 (Year A): There the Action Lies
2004 (Year C): Forgiveness - In His Name
2003 (Year B): What Does "He Ascended" Mean?
2002 (Year A): Finding the Way Home (Ascension & Mother's Day)
2001 (Year C): Submission to Jesus
2000 (Year B): Beyond the Secular Paradigm
1999 (Year A): A Wake Up Call
1998 (Year C): Jesus' Rule Vs. Cafeteria Catholicism

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