Article 59 – Catechism of the Catholic Church Series
Paragraphs 659-664 Ascended into Heaven
Most of us have seen movies or television shows depicting various interpretations of what heaven is like. The 1941 movie called “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” starring Robert Montgomery and Claude Raines, gave World War II audiences an opportunity to step away from wartime worries to enjoy some light-hearted entertainment. Almost 40 years later, Warren Beatty’s “Heaven Can Wait,” a remake of the earlier 1941 movie, likewise offered an escape from daily preoccupations. Both movies involved a man who was mistakenly sent prematurely to heaven’s waiting room. In order to return to earth each man had to wait for a suitable replacement to die so he could continue his own existence in the body of the newly deceased man. Through the years, numerous other depictions of heaven have been represented in movies like “Ghost” in 1990 starring Patrick Swayze, Whoopi Goldberg and Demi Moore. Most recently, 2014 brought us “Heaven is for Real” and “God’s Not Dead.”
Aside from being entertaining, and providing often exaggerated depictions of what heaven is like and other details pertaining to the afterlife, the question remains, how do we know what heaven is really like?
We learn from the Catechism that heaven is the “Father’s house,” where only Christ has access for us (ccc 661). The Preface of the Mass of the Ascension states it this way: “we, his members, might have confidence that we too shall go where he, our Head and our Source, has preceded us.” In fact, it is the “historical and transcendent event” of the Ascension that is the point of transition “between the glory of the risen Christ and that of the Christ exalted to the Father’s right hand” (ccc 660).
Two themes that surface again and again in these few catechism passages about heaven include: 1. Christ being “lifted up” and 2. Christ “seated at the right hand of the Father.” Paragraph 659 talks about Christ being lifted or “taken up into heaven” (ccc 659). A few passages later, the Catechism explains that Christ was “lifted up from the earth” (ccc 662). Several passages also speak of Christ being seated at the right hand of the Father or “exalted to the Father’s right hand” (ccc 660). This notion of Christ being seated at the Father’s right hand “signifies the inauguration of the Messiah’s kingdom” (ccc 664).
In the Old Testament, the prophet Daniel had a vision regarding this inauguration of the Messiah: “To him was given dominion and glory and kingdom,” the prophet says, “that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” Daniel continues, “his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” ( Dn 7:14).
St. John Damascene also offers insight into this topic of Christ’s Ascension to the Father in heaven. St. John was born in Damascus about 676 A.D. Writing more than 600 years after St. Paul’s famous conversion to Christianity, when the resurrected Christ appeared in a great light to Saul of Tarsus as he traveled from Jerusalem to Damascus, St. John Damascene explains: “By ‘the Father’s right hand’ we understand the glory and honor of divinity, where he who exists as Son of God before all ages, indeed as God, of one being with the Father, is seated bodily after he became incarnate and his .esh was glori.ed.” Paragraph 661 of the Catechism tells us that Christ’s final ascent to the Father is “closely linked to the first, that is, to his descent from heaven in the Incarnation” (ccc 661). Only the one who “came from the Father” can return to the Father (see John 16:28). Earlier, the Evangelist John observed: “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man” ( Jn 3:13).
Left to our own natural powers
we humans do not have access to the “Father’s house” ( Jn 14:2). Only Christ can open for us such access. That access is made possible by Christ’s transition from the glory of the resurrection to his place “seated at the Father’s right hand” (ccc 664). This transition is “marked by the historical and transcendent event of the Ascension” (ccc 660).
For now, as members of the Body of Christ, we can most assuredly say “that we too shall go where he, our Head and our Source, has preceded us” (“Roman Missal,” Preface of the Ascension). How is this possible? Because, “Christ permanently exercises his priesthood” in the presence of the Father and intercedes on our behalf (ccc 662). In short, “Jesus Christ, the head of the Church, precedes us into the Father’s glorious kingdom so that we, the members of his Body, may live in the hope of one day being with him for ever” (ccc 666).
Confident that heaven is for real, most of us are also content to wait for heaven. Meanwhile, we go about seeking to bring a little bit of heaven into the lives of those Our Lord has seen fit to place in our path.
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop and the bishop’s liaison to persons with disabilities.