While the glorious ascension of Christ to Heaven may have taken the disciples by surprise, the assurances that he would return and would soon send them “the promise of the Father”, left them with “great joy”. There was great joy in heaven too at the victorious homecoming of the Second Person of the Trinity. To picture this scene we can only challenge our imaginations. But the Early Church Fathers, who interpreted events in the life of Christ in light of of the Old Testament, found a glimpse into the heavenly procession from the Psalms.
St. Justin Martyr (AD 100-165) quotes Psalm 24:7 as a prophecy of the Ascension:
“You see that he was to mount to heaven according to the prophecies. It was said: ‘Lift up the gates of heaven, let them open and the King of Glory shall enter in.'”†
The liturgical passage in Psalm 24 reads,
“Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted, you ancient portals, that the king of glory may enter. Who is this king of glory? The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in war. Lift up your heads, O gates; rise up, you ancient portals, that the king of glory may enter. Who is this king of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the king of glory” (24:7-10).
Commenting on this text, St. Irenaeus (AD 130-202) emphasizes the mystery of the incarnation as the reason that the guardians of heaven did not recognize Christ in his human appearance:
“The eternal doors are heaven. As the Word came down to Earth without being visible to creatures, He was not recognized by them in His descent. Rendered visible by his incarnation, He was raised to heaven. In seeing Him, the lower angels cried out to those above, ‘Open your gates, be raised eternal doors, and the King of glory will make his entrance.’ And the angels on high said in their astonishment: ‘Who is he?’ Those who saw Him, acclaimed Him again: ‘It is the Lord strong and mighty, it is He, the King of glory.'”
Gregory of Nyssa elaborates on the theme:
“…[I]t is our guardians who form His cortege [entourage] and who command the hypercosmic doors to open so that He may once again be adored within them. But they do not recognize Him because He is clothed with the poor tunic of our nature.”
Another passage that the Fathers interpreted as foreshadowing the Ascension is Psalm 110, but this was also how the text was understood by New Testament authors. In his Spirit-filled speech on the Day of Pentecost, Peter makes a reference to the Psalm:
“God raised this Jesus; of this we are all witnesses. Exalted at the right hand of God, he received the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father and poured it forth, as you see and hear. For David did not go up into heaven, but he himself said: “The LORD says to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, while I make your enemies your footstool’” (Acts 2:32-35, Psalm 110:1).
Jesus identifies himself with this passage when he argued with the Pharisees:
“‘What is your opinion about the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ They replied, ‘David’s’. He said to them, ‘How, then, does David, inspired by the Spirit, call him ‘lord,’ saying, ‘The Lord said to my lord, Sit at my right hand until I place your enemies under your feet?’ If David calls him ‘lord,’ how can he be his son?’” (Matthew 22:42-45).
The Fathers saw this Psalm as foretelling a chronology that begins with the Ascension (“Sit at my right hand”) and ends with the destruction of Christ’s enemies (“until I place your enemies under your feet”). St Justin Martyr adds that the period of the Church was in-between the two events, the era in which the world would be evangelized:
“God the Father of the world, was to raise Christ to heaven after his resurrection, and He was to keep him there until he had struck down the demons, His enemies, and until the number of elect should be complete…”
Some Christian denominations regard the descent of the Spirit on Pentecost as temporary and limited to the Apostolic era. But that is not how the apostles themselves or the Church fathers viewed it; the Spirit was intended for the entire period of world evangelization. This, then, includes our own era.
And note that before the ascension of Jesus the disciples already had the Spirit indwelling in them, so did Simeon when he was summoned by the Spirit to the temple, and Elizabeth upon hearing the voice of Mary, etc. So the outpouring of the Spirit to which Peter refers is something new; a dramatic amplification of the Spirit’s power for the purpose of evangelization. Some examples from the book of Acts:
“And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken and they were all filled with the Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (4:31).
“Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit and faith and the Jews could not withstand the wisdom with which he spoke” (6:5).
“Stephen filled with Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”
(7:55). “Barnabas was full of the Holy Spirit and faith; and a large company was added to the Lord” (11:24).
These extraordinary manifestations of the Spirit reflected a solemn promise of God, a promise that is still valid. To be “clothed with power” is every bit as possible for Christians in the 21st-century as much as it was in the 1st-century.
†All quotations taken from Danielou, Jean, S.J. “The Ascension”. In The Bible and the Liturgy, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1956, pp. 303-318.