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The Ascension is usually misinterpreted: How it’s about us

Ascension of Christ the Savior - Ancient Basilica of San Frediano in Lucca town - Tuscany - Italy

IMAG3S | Shutterstock

Fr. Peter John Cameron, OP - published on 05/20/23

Everything we long for in the depths of our heart will come to us in exactly the way we need it to come to us.

The Church celebrates these days the solemnity of the Ascension. Shortly before Jesus ascends into heaven, he tells his Apostles “to wait for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4). But what is the promise of the Father?

One glorious reply can be found in the stunning 13th-to-14th-century mosaic of the Ascension gracing the façade of the 6th-century basilica of of San Frediano in Lucca, Italy.

On cloud nine

The mosaic portrays the mystery of the Ascension in an overtly dramatic, dynamic manner. Acts 1:9 states that, as the Apostles were looking on, Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” But nothing is nebulous about this depiction. Here there is no cloud — more like a royal court. For two “elevator” angels have carried down from heaven an elaborate cushioned, carpeted throne. Once the Lord mounts his throne (see Ps 47:6), the delivery angels commence their return trip, hoisting their divine Passenger to heaven by the mandorla, or aureola — the radiance of luminous clouds — encircling the Son of God. Jesus is lifted up out of sight by his majesty.

Pope Benedict XVI made the point that, for the disciples, “the ‘Ascension’ was not what we usually misinterpret it as being: the temporary absence of Christ from the world. It meant rather his new, definitive, and irrevocable presence by participation in God’s royal power.” Which is what the mosaic shows us! And according to the mosaic’s spirituality, the reason we are called to witness the transported Jesus is so that we ourselves might experience transport. The only cloud here is the “cloud nine” Christ invites us to be on with him.

What we are to hope for

The ascending seated Savior lifts his right hand in blessing. With his left hand he cradles a book — the Word of God. The outgoing image of Jesus is that of his blessing and evangelizing in sovereign splendor. To the end, Christ is drawing all people to himself and to his Gospel. 

The Ascension of Christ the Saviour with the apostles below, The Romanesque Basilica of San Frediano, Lucca, Tuscany, Italy on June 03, 2017

The Ascension scene aims to inspire profound hope in the Apostles — the beginning of the fulfillment even now of what Jesus has already promised them for all eternity: “In the new world, when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones” (Mt 19:28). 

This hope is meant for us as well! St. Augustine imagines Jesus saying in the Ascension: “Let my mortal body be raised up to heaven that you may learn what you are to hope for.” For hope “sees what it aims for as already its possession, and then gathers all its forces to success” (Fr. Basil Maturin). The feast of the Ascension is Christ’s encouragement for us to gather all the forces of our hope by focusing on him in faith. Further proof that the graces radiating from the Ascension are meant personally for us is the fact that the ascending Jesus in the mosaic does not look at those disciples below so intently transfixed on him — rather, the Lord is looking at us.

Further Ascension solace comes when we consider the inscription emblazoned above the Apostles’ heads. It reads: 


The Latin is a little off; it would more accurately read: 


The text is a paraphrase of Acts 1:11: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” And who speaks these words? Scripture says “two men in white robes” (Acts 2:10) — in other words, the very angels who are now conveying our Christ to his exaltation in heaven. But before they do so, they want to exalt us with as much hope and holy expectation as we can bear. And then they bear Jesus away. 

Continuing closeness, lasting joy

Thanks to the grace of the Ascension, says St. Leo the Great, “the Son of God now began to be indescribably more present in his divinity to those from whom he was further removed in his humanity.” Pope Benedict XVI explains this sublime paradox:

“Ascension” does not mean a departure into some remote region of the cosmos but, rather, the continuing closeness that the disciples experience so strongly that it becomes a source of lasting joy. Now, through his power over space, Jesus is present and accessible to all — throughout history and in every place.”

With all this, if you feel like there’s something missing, you are right. Shouldn’t the Blessed Virgin Mary be included in this miraculous event? The answer is Yes! But at a certain point in time, someone decided that a window was needed in the basilica … so they cut out the image of the Madonna which had been present there under Jesus, in the very center of the gathered Apostles, and they inserted that central arched window.

The promise of the Father

What is the promise of the Father? It is the certainty that we ourselves will share in the glory of God’s Son through Christ’s continuing closeness … the assurance that, even in moments of powerlessness and loss, we are accompanied by a hope that will not disappoint us but will give us lasting joy … that everything we long for in the depths of our heart will come to us in exactly the way we need it to come to us, for Jesus is forever accessible and present. The promise of the Father is a new way of being loved. And it is made possible and permanent for us through the mystery of the Ascension of the Lord into heaven.

When the townsfolk of Lucca are down in the dumps, they can look up at their beautiful basilica. For that magnificent mosaic throne remains a kind of magnet. Gazing upon it, they are drawn out of themselves so as to become themselves:

As the magnet draws metal to it, so does the ascended Jesus Christ draw after himself all hearts that he touches. And just as the metal itself receives the magnet’s power of attraction, and is moved and lifted up and joined to the magnet in spite of its own nature, so it is with souls touched by the magnet of the eternal Son of God. Such people are drawn out of themselves upward to God. They forget the laws of their own nature, and follow the touch of God (Fr. John Tauler,+1361).


Find Fr. Peter John Cameron’s reflection on the Sunday Gospel each week here.

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