One of the great gifts that the Church gives us is the Liturgical Calendar. Its purpose is not only to remind us of the marvelous plan of salvation, but also for us to be present in each of the saving mysteries of Christ. With this in mind, the Church is inviting us during this time to go to the Upper Room with Our Lady and the Apostles and to await the Gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. During the Church’s first Novena from the Ascension to Pentecost, the Apostles must have found themselves reflecting deeply on the mystery of Our Lord’s Ascension and why it was necessary for Him to go so that He could send the Holy Spirit (John 16:7). While we join them in prayer, it is expedient that we too meditate on this necessity.
To begin, it is helpful to point out that when Our Lord says it is of necessity He does not mean that both He and the Holy Spirit could not both be present on the earth at the same time. It is not as if it would create some rift in the space-time continuum to have two Persons of the Blessed Trinity present on earth–especially since They have a single Divine nature. This means that when one of the Persons of the Trinity acts outside the Trinity, it is all three that act. It is necessary in the sense that it was a means by which Christ could more fully reveal the Godhead and our relationship with God in Heaven.
To see how this is so, we should recall that the Torah (see Leviticus 1-7) required five main types of sacrifices—the cereal offering, the peace offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering, and the burnt offering. It was the last one—the burnt offering that was meant to be a sign of Christ’s offering on the Cross. In the holocaust or ascending sacrifice (see Lev 1:3-7, 6:8-13) the animal was drained of its blood and the pieces of the carcass were laid upon the altar hearth from which it ascended to God in the form of smoke. Unlike any of the other sacrifices, no part of it was given to the worshipper. Instead it was considered a total gift to the Lord and was fully consumed in the fire. Its effect was atonement for sin.
Christ’s ascension then is the completion of His sacrifice on Calvary in which He was both Priest and Victim. This helps to explain why Christ does not allow Mary to touch Him when she meets Him on the day of the Resurrection because He had “not yet ascended” (Jn 20:17). His offering for sin was not yet complete. A first Century Jew reading John’s Gospel would have recognized in Jesus’ saying that He considered Himself as a holocaust offering for atonement.
But saying that Christ had to ascend because He was completing the ritual of the Burnt Offering is like putting the cart before the horse. The Burnt Offering described in the Torah required the whole sacrifice to rise in smoke because Christ was to ascend into Heaven, not the other way around. Instead there was a deeper reason.
To understand this deeper reason, it is necessary to grasp a basic understanding of Trinitarian theology. When we speak of a “personal” God we mean specifically that God has (more accurately, He is) a rational nature. This means that He has both an intellect and a will. Because He is a pure Spirit both of these powers of intellect and will must be operative at all times. This means from all eternity He is knowing and loving. What is it that God knows? He knows Himself perfectly.
One of the perfections is existence. So in order to have perfect knowledge of a person that person must actually exist. This becomes clear if we look at an analogy. You may have knowledge of your dream lover, but if that lover is not a real flesh and blood person then they are not perfect. They must actually exist as real person. So in order for God’s knowledge of Himself to be perfect, He must exist as a distinct Person. This Person is the Son or Word.
Likewise with the divine Will whose object is love. The measure of love is to be fruitful and the perfect love between the Father and the Son bears the Fruit of the Holy Spirit.
Why does this deep theology matter? Isn’t it all just speculation of what is otherwise a mystery? In a way, yes, there is some speculation involved in any explanation of the mystery of the Trinity. But it is this life that we are being invited into when St. Peter says we are to become “partakers of the divine life” (2Peter 1:4). The blessed in heaven will spend their time not merely looking at God, but actually participating in the life of God. Heaven is not “resting in peace” in the way we tend to think of it, but is extremely active living in the life of God. But this is not just reserved to heaven. Those who have sanctifying grace in their souls participate in the life of God now. That is what sanctifying grace is—a participation in the life of God. This understanding of the life of the Trinity has effect on our life in the here and now. Eternal life begins at Baptism and those who persevere to the end merely have the veil removed.
How is it that we participate in the life of God? We enter into the life of God by “putting on Christ” (Romans 13:14). In essence, we participate in Christ’s “place” in His communion with the Father. This is what it means when St. Paul says we are “in Christ” (c.f. Gal 3:27).
Now the link between the Ascension and Pentecost becomes clearer. The Son, in keeping His human nature for all eternity, has brought human nature directly into the life of the Trinity. By ascending to the Father, Jesus reveals that mankind now has the capacity to share in the divine Nature. This is how He lives forever to make intercession for us (Hebrews 7:25).
What happens when mankind has a direct communion with the Father? The fruit of this communion leads to the Holy Spirit. It is of the very nature of God from all eternity that the union between the Father and the Son yields the Holy Spirit. If mankind is caught up in this through the Son’s human nature, then the Holy Spirit comes to mankind. Without this communion, the Holy Spirit cannot come (John 16:7). Pentecost is a direct result of the Ascension.
To conclude I want to return to the difficult verse regarding Our Lord’s admonition to Mary Magdalene not to touch Him because it helps to bring to light a necessary distinction. Our Lord tells her that He is “going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). The point is that while we participate in the life of the Trinity, we do not become God. It is not as if we are substituted for the Son. There remains a distinction between His relationship with the Father (“my Father”) and ours (“your Father). He “participates” in God by Nature, we only participate by grace. As long as we maintain this distinction, we are able to pull back the veil ever so slightly. Certainly it enables us to better understand Our Lord’s words and the causal relationship between the Ascension and Pentecost.