In worldly terms, ascension connotes a promotion or a rise in status. Society encourages us to ascend corporate and social ladders in order to enrich our lives with more opportunity, more money, and more prestige.
In Christian terms, however, Jesus models an alternative understanding of what it means to ascend. The Ascension of Jesus Christ is an ascension like none other – not just because this is the ascension of God who became man, and is therefore incomprehensible, but also because his is an ascension by way of kenosis.
Kenosis (κένωσις) means self-emptying, and refers to Jesus’s act of renouncing his own will for the salvation of humanity, resulting in the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection. St. Paul maps the trajectory of Christ’s kenotic ascension in his Letter to the Philippians (Ch. 2:6-11):
[Christ], though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance, he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Through kenosis, Jesus teaches us the way to the Father. As Jesus did, so we must do. We must empty ourselves, renouncing worldly ascension for the ascension that leads to Trinitarian communion.
St. John Paul II offers the following commentary on the above-referenced passage:
The Canticle unfolds in a double vertical trajectory: a first movement is one of descent followed by ascension. Indeed, on one hand, there is the humiliating descent of the Son of God when, in the Incarnation, he becomes man out of love for humankind. He plummets into the kenosis, the “emptying” of his divine glory, pushed to the point of death on the Cross, the punishment of slaves who were least among men, thus making him a true brother of suffering humanity, sinful and rejected.
On the other hand, there is the triumphant ascension which takes place on Easter Day, when the Father reinstates Christ in the divine splendour and he is celebrated as Lord by the entire cosmos and by all men and women now redeemed. We are placed before a magnificent re-reading of Christ’s mystery, primarily the Paschal one. St Paul, along with proclaiming the Resurrection (cf. I Cor 15: 3-5), defines Christ’s Paschal mystery as the “exaltation,” “raising up,” “glorification.”
Therefore, from the bright horizon of divine transcendence, the Son of God crossed the infinite distance between Creator and creature. He did not grasp on, as if to a prey, to his “equality with God,” which was due to him by nature and not from usurpation. He did not want to claim jealously this prerogative as a treasure, nor use it for his own interests. Rather, Christ “emptied,” “humbled” himself and appeared poor, weak, destined for the shameful death of crucifixion; it is precisely from this extreme humiliation that the great movement of ascension takes off, described in the second part of the Pauline hymn (cf. Phil 2, 9-11).
If we desire to follow Christ and reject ascension as the world defines it, then we must willingly imitate the “extreme humiliation of Christ.”
The Gospels provide many models of humility, from John the Baptist declaring that Jesus “must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30); to Jesus answering the disciples’ question of who is the greatest by pointing to a child (cf. Matthew 18:1-5); to Jesus washing the feet of the disciples at the last supper (cf. John 13:4-16) before the ultimate humiliation of the crucifixion.
Additionally, we can prayerfully enter into the humility of Christ through the Spiritual Exercises.
In the Meditation on the Two Standards (SpEx 136-148), St. Ignatius of Loyola asks us to imagine a battlefield, with Satan on one side and Christ on the other. Ignatius observes that Satan seeks to ensnare people today using methods similar to those he used to tempt Jesus in the desert (cf. Matthew 4:1-11): by offering first riches in exchange to join Satan’s camp, then worldly honors, and lastly gratification of pride, the root of all evil (cf. Genesis 3:5).
Christ counters Satan’s three-fold strategy through the following:
First, to combat the enemy’s temptation to riches, Jesus calls us all to spiritual poverty – total dependence on God. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (cf. Matthew 5:3).
Second, Jesus proposes bearing the world’s insults and contempt to resist the temptation of earthly honors: “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).
Third, Jesus offers humility as the antidote to pride. “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
To put it succinctly, Jesus embodies a three-fold process of kenosis to defeat the whims of Satan, thereby providing us with a model of emptying ourselves to allow God to work within us. Reflecting on this model in prayer can help us grow in imitating Christ and his humility so that we can “love him more and follow him more closely” (SpEx 104).
Kenosis, the “extreme humiliation” of Christ as John Paul II referenced, is not an end in itself but rather a path to deification. Far from a solitary act, the Ascension of Christ to the Father is an invitation of grace to share in the divine life with the Trinity. As Saint Athanasius famously stated, “The Son of God became man so that we might become God.”
Infinitely higher than any worldly honor, deification (interchangeable with divinization or theosis) is the Trinity’s bestowal of grace that allows us to “share in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). The paradox of the path of kenosis is that it leads us to deep lowliness precisely as it leads us to highest exaltation through union with God. Jesus prepares a place for us (cf. John 14:2-3) through his Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection so that we may also participate in the divine life. The kenosis of Christ, therefore, is the means to theosis.
The Eastern Fathers wrote extensively on divinization. For further reading on this subject, I recommend the works of Fr. George Maloney, SJ, namely Abiding in the Indwelling Trinity, God’s Community of Love, and Inward Stillness; and Called to be Children of God by Fr. David Meconi, SJ.
The Ascension of Christ into heaven offers the followers of Jesus a model to imitate: to embrace kenosis so that we might share in the divine nature. Unlike the ways of the world and the standard of Satan, it shows us that lowliness is the path to divine ascendancy. May we therefore, by the grace of God, wholeheartedly surrender to the call of self-emptying so that we can, also by the grace of God, become one with the Trinity.