By: Christopher West
In the joyous Easter season, the Church sets her sights on the celebration of Christ’s ascension into heaven and his sending of the Holy Spirit on Mary and the Apostles. I’d like to reflect on what the feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost teach us about our own mystery as incarnate human beings.
The Problem of Spiritualism
In his book The Nuptial Mystery, Angelo Cardinal Scola, the Patriarch of Venice, writes: “I believe that one of the most serious temptations that besets Christians today is spiritualism. What I mean is the often unintentional but nevertheless serious way some people have of looking at Christ’s ascension as a disincarnation. It is fairly common,” the Cardinal continues, “even among Christians, to find the practical belief that, ultimately, the event of Christ does not succeed in being present materially in the here and now of history. Jesus Christ… is treated like a fact of the past!” There are so many important points to mine from the Cardinal Scola’s observations.
First, so many of us are prone to “spiritualism.” We have inadvertently “disincarnated” the Christian mystery. So many of us consider “holiness” to involve living a “spiritual” life cut off from our bodies. Christian “spirituality,” Christian holiness, is always an embodied spirituality, an embodied holiness. To cut off our spiritual lives from our bodily lives is to render Christ’s incarnation meaningless in our lives. When St. Paul says “live by the spirit and not by the flesh” (see Gal 5:16-26) he is not saying we should reject our bodies in favor of the spirit. He’s saying we should welcome the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our bodies so that what we do with our bodies will be in-spired by God. We are to incarnate God’s life. We are to offer our bodies to God as a spiritual act of worship (see Rom 12).
Christ was Somebody
Christ took on a body to redeem our bodies. Christ was raised from the dead bodily and ascended into the glory of heaven bodily so that our entire incarnate humanity might be taken with him into the eternal life of the Trinity. And this is the essential link between Christ’s Ascension and Pentecost. Christ told us that his sending of the Holy Spirit was dependent upon his ascension to the Father. “I tell you the truth; it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (Jn 16:7). Christ had to take our humanity up into the life of the Trinity for us to be able to share in that life which is what Pentecost is all about.
A professor of mine once explained Pentecost not so much as the descent of the Holy Spirit on us, but as the sure sign that, in Christ, our incarnate humanity had already been taken up into the life of the Trinity. Pentecost — our sharing in the life of the Holy Spirit — is the effect, then, of the Lord’s bodily Ascension into heaven. Because of Pentecost, the Catechism says that those who believe in Christ “already share in the communion of the Holy Trinity” — and we do so “in the humility of the flesh” (CCC, n. 732).
As Cardinal Scola observed, when we disincarnate Christ’s ascension, Jesus becomes merely an event of the past. He has no way of being materially present to us in the here and now. Christ’s bodily ascension, on the other hand, allows him to be materially present to us here and now. How so? By the sending of the Holy Spirit who, just as he overshadowed Mary to bring about the mystery of the Incarnation, continues to communicate Christ’s bodily presence to us in the mystery of the Church’s sacraments. The bodily, physical realities of the sacraments communicate ultimate Spiritual reality to us. This is the logic of Christianity, which is the logic of the Incarnation, brought to us courtesy of the Lord’s bodily Ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.