The Angels, in these words –firstly, reprove the wonder of the Apostles ; secondly, they assert the Ascension of the Lord; thirdly, they predict His return once more to earth
I. On the first head it is to be noted, that the Angels reproved the wonder of the Apostles in the words, ‘Why stand ye gazing up into heaven? Concerning which four points are to be noted:
Firstly, the Apostles were amazed at the Ascension, which was accomplished with so great glory and power, and about which also the Angels themselves were so zealous, asking Who is this?’(Isa 63:1). And remark the excellence of this Ascension, His difference from others who were taken from the earth. How great, indeed, is the contrast between our Blessed Lord and Enoch and Elijah.
The Apostles are amazed as what they have never before experienced. Christ is lifted up into Heaven. He assumes the nature of the old Man to bring sin, death, and Satan into their respective spiritual deaths. He is the new Man. He is more than Enoch and Elijah. He has been ‘here and there’ simultaneously in a transfigured body. He has been simultaneously in one place and another. Man’s experience of him differs according the respective natures that needed to be converted to His new and glorious being. He is supernatural and yet He eats and drinks. He is seen as Man and yet through the simple and commonplace breaking of bread His transfigured nature is seen and sensed. He is God and Man. He is no longer subject to the conditions of the temporal world. He is Man. He is more. He is God. The angels are more astounded than they were at His Incarnation. They have forgotten Adam’s original communion with God. They are astounded that God transfigured as Man can leave the earth and ascend into Heaven. But as they watch, they comprehend what is happening.
Secondly, the Apostles were grieving at His departure. The Great Comforter was going away from them. ‘Ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice.’ (John 16:20); ‘Woe, woe is me, my son, why did we send thee to go to a strange country; the light of our eyes’ (Tobit 10: 4).
The Apostles are men who grieve at His going from them. They have just become accustomed to His Resurrected nature. They are getting used to His new real presence in their midst. And yet they cannot hold on to Him in this way. This way is at home only in Heaven. This is the way that they too must be given at the General Resurrection and on the day of Judgment. But for now He must leave and they must remain. They must grieve the loss of Him in one way before He comes to them in another. For them to subsist spiritually in the Person of the Son, they must be one with Him in the Person of the Spirit. The Apostles are reproved, however, since once the Angels realize what is happening, they must prepare the Apostles for their future life in and through the Ascended Christ, as He becomes their Head in order to make them the members of His body in time and space.
Thirdly, the Apostles were fearing because of the persecutions which they expected from the world, since they were left alone amidst those tribulations of the world which Jesus had already spoken to them about. ‘In the world ye shall have tribulation.’ (John 16:22).
The Apostles fear because they have no strength in themselves to help themselves against the promised assaults of the world, the flesh, and the devil. They have not yet learned what true union with their Master and Lord means. They must be weaned from His material tangibility and all the benefits which have issued forth from it. But they are preparing for a wholly new and unheard of existence. They are preparing to be one with God’s Word in a way that has not been experienced by man since before the Fall. They are naturally afraid and fearful because they have not yet learned to embrace Jesus Christ in their hearts and souls.
Fourthly, the Apostles were confiding in their Lords promises to them. ‘I go to my Father’ by the substruction of My Body: ‘I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice’ (John 16:22). I will come again to you through the mission of the Holy Ghost: ‘I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter’ (John 16:16); ‘Lo! I am with you always, even unto the end of the ages.’ (Matt 28:20).
The Apostles are reproved because they have forgotten what Jesus had said to them during His earthly ministry and particularly in His Last Supper discourses. They should remember that Jesus has already told them of His ultimate departure. That He would not leave them comfortless. That they would see Him again. That He would send another Comforter. That He would never leave nor forsake them. And, yet, they have misunderstood His meaning. They thought that He was talking of His Resurrection. They did not understand that His Resurrection is a precursor to His Ascension.
II. On the second head it is to be noted, that the Angels assert the Ascension of the Lord: ‘This same Jesus Which is taken up from you into heaven ;”’about which four things are to be noted.
Firstly, Jesus ascended from earth in the sight of the Apostles, who represented the earth.
The Angels assert that Christ has ascended into heaven. From the Apostles standpoint He indeed goes up and disappears. But the Angles describe and explicate the nature of this ascent. The Apostles are of the earth, earthy. And so the Angels must tell them that the same Christ who ascends will come to them in life manner as He has ascended. What they mean is, first, in a spiritual sense, that the Holy Spirit lifts Him into Heaven and the Holy Spirit will bring Him back to them, though in a different form, inwardly and spiritually. Second, what they mean is that Christ will come again in glory, in His transfigured state, to judge both the quick and the dead.
Secondly, Jesus ascended into heaven. ‘Two men stood by them in white apparel.’ These Angels were the representatives of and witnesses from heaven.
Once the angels understand what is happening, they witness to the truth. They understand what is happening since their natural habitat is heaven. So they are aware of and have sensed the entry of Christ into their midst. And thus they reveal this truth to the Apostles who could not see beyond the clouds.
Thirdly, Jesus ascended through the clouds. ‘A cloud received Him out of their sight.’ This cloud represents the Almighty Father into Whose presence the Son ascended. The cloud is the witness of God the Father.
The cloud is the presence of the Father into which Christ is now moving. This represents God’s nature. Beyond and into it no man can go as yet. Christ must lead the way. The way that He is, is the only way into the Father’s cloudy presence. ‘No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.’ (St. John i. 18) So Christ returns to the Father in order that from within the unity of man with God in Himself, He might begin to work out our salvation.
Fourthly, Jesus ascended in the act of blessing. ‘He lifted up His hands and blessed them; while He blessed them He was parted from them and carried up into heaven’ (Luke 24:51). Our Lord was so His own witness that He ascended in His flesh — in that very flesh in which He had been crucified, and in which also He rose from the dead.
Apart from the Angels’ testimony and the perceivable facts, Christ has blessed His friends in departing. He not only moves back to the Father but only after He has blessed them with His wounded hands. In so doing, He is leaving them with that portion of His Holy Spirit that will give them patience, and an increase of faith, hope, and love as they wait for His immanent coming at Pentecost. They are blessed by His wounded hands that they might be stirred all the more to repent prior to His Holy Spirit’s descent.
These four witnesses — earth, heaven, God the Father, and God the Son— establish the truth of the Ascension of the Lord.
Men are the earth and they witness the Ascension. The Father is the Clouds, and He embraces His Son’s Ascension. The Son Himself blesses the earth and goes into the clouds and thus joins earth to heaven, and Man to God.
III. On the third head it is to be noted, that the Angels predict our Blessed Lord’s return to earth. ‘He shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven.
Of our Lord’s coming to judgment four things are to be noted as in regard to His Ascension.
Firstly, the earth shall witness it, for the Judge will be seen alike by the righteous and the wicked. ‘They shall see the Son of Man’ (Matt 24:30).
At the Second Coming the Lord will come to judge both the quick and the dead. The Angels thus predict the finality of Christ’s Incarnational Mission for all men. All men will be judged. Those who have obeyed Jesus will ascend into the life eternal. Those who have disobeyed Jesus will descend into the life infernal.
Secondly, God shall bear witness to it, for the Judge will be ‘coming in the clouds.
Christ will come from and through the Father to judge all men. The Father’s will is to be accomplished completely and fairly. It must be accomplished completely since every act of will in a man’s life matters and thus must be measured it the scales of eternal truth. It must be accomplished fairly since God must reward His rational free-willing creatures with precisely what they have longed for, desired, and chosen. God will never force His salvation on anyone. Thus those who have desired to become His sons through the Sonship of Christ will receive salvation, and those do not want Him and have rejected His love will receive an eternity of life without Him.
Thirdly, with His hands raised for smiting sinners. ‘With power and great glory.’ (id.)
With His own wounded hands Christ will witness to His Ascension. Upon those who desire His sanctification His wounded hands will bless and save. Over those who have rejected Him, the hands of blessing will smite the sinners and carry them into Hell. The power and great glory that His hands have won for man’s redemption will be the means of either saving and embracing some for Heaven or smiting and banishing others into Hell.
Fourthly, with holy Angels as His witnesses standing around Him, ‘Whom they shall precede, bearing the insignia of His Passion.’ ‘And He shall send His Angels with a great sound of a trumpet.’
The angels shall go before Christ to herald the final truth of His Passion and Resurrection. They will herald the good news of Christ’s victory over sin, death, and Satan. They will sound the trumpet, and the dead shall be raised, some to Heaven and some into Hell. Both groups shall be raised from the temporal to the eternal. Some will be raised up into an eternity of joy and the other into an eternity of misery. It is said, ‘they shall be raised’ because eternity, no matter what the type, is final and most perfect.