His divine life—the life of the only-begotten Son: God from God, light from light, true God from true God—that life began… well, it did not “begin.” It is. Eternally. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
So the divine life of Jesus: eternal. On the other hand, His human life had a beginning, in Mary’s womb. But it has no end, since He conquered death.
What about the earthly pilgrimage of the Lord Jesus?
His pilgrimage on earth began in the same place where His human life began—just like it does for us. In our mother’s wombs. But, whereas our earthly pilgrimages end with… death, Jesus’ earthly pilgrimage did not end with death.
A lot of people thought it had ended with His death. Usually when condemned men died on crosses in the occupied territories of the Roman Empire, that spelled the end of that particular person’s earthly pilgrimage. When Jesus gave up His spirit and bowed His Sacred Head in death—it seemed to all observers that a human pilgrimage had ended.
But in this case, it had not. By no means. He rose from the dead on the third day, Easter Sunday morning. And He spent another forty days as a human pilgrim on earth. Walking, eating, talking, etc., like we do. Except that now He could not die. Because in His human flesh, He had already overcome the power of death. His resurrection has taught us that death does not go on forever, like infinity. It has a limit. And Jesus’ human life extends beyond that limit of death.
Now, maybe we want to ask: Lord, why did you continue to live as a pilgrim on earth for forty days after you rose from the dead? As opposed to fifty days, or ten? Or six years? Or ten thousand years? Or just a few hours?
We know that the Apostles needed some further instruction. They needed exactly forty days worth of further instruction, apparently. But maybe we think we need some further instruction, too? And we’d like to encounter Jesus here on earth, as a fellow human pilgrim here. But He’s in heaven, and His presence on earth lies hidden behind different veils. He does indeed come among us—in the Blessed Sacrament, and the other sacraments of the Church, and in our brothers and sisters, especially the poor and suffering. But we can’t see Him. We greet Him here on earth solely by faith.
So I don’t think we can really answer the question: Why did He stay forty days after He rose–as opposed to forty years or forty minutes or forty thousand years? We don’t know that answer. We just know that what happened happened. Forty days after He had risen from the dead, His human pilgrimage on earth ended, because He… ascended into heaven.
Good! Correct! But before we settle back and preen ourselves for knowing that easy answer, let’s consider how little we actually know about it.
We reflected earlier on the beginning of Jesus’ human pilgrimage, in the womb of the Virgin. But we have a hard time really grasping, really getting a lock on that reality.
After all, we have a hard time conceiving fully the reality of any human conception. Do I altogether understand how I myself came to be in my mother’s womb? How my human pilgrimage began? Does my mind have a lock on every aspect of that reality? Every biological, historical, relational, anatomical, nutritional, sociological, ontological aspect? And there are lots of other aspects besides. I for one cannot claim to understand fully even a single one of those aspects.
Then, in Jesus’ case, you throw in something else. When the Holy Spirit conceived Him in Mary’s womb, God Almighty, eternal and ineffable, began a human pilgrimage. God became a tiny baby. That’s what we call a genuinely unfathomable mystery.
My point here is: The same degree of mystery attends the end of the Lord’s pilgrimage. We believe in the Incarnation, because God has given us the gift of faith. We need that same gift of divine faith to hold in our minds the sublime reality of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven.
Yes, we know as a simple fact that His earthly pilgrimage did end. But that conclusion of His pilgrimage involved a human being, body and soul, entering…
Heaven. The realm of God. Eternity. Perpetual peace. Utter happiness that nothing can disturb. Endless joyful music that never gets boring. A meal that never leaves you tired or bloated. Fearless, comforting friendship. Wisdom with no darkness at all.
The pilgrimage of the Lord Jesus ended by Him entering all this, body and soul, as a man. The same beatitude that He had, as God; the same communion with the Father that the eternal Son eternally possesses—now this man, Jesus, God incarnate, entered into it. With that His pilgrimage on earth ended.
In this, and in nothing less, lies our Christian hope. In our pilgrimage on earth, we must often drink the cup of bitterness. This world, beautiful as it can be, does not know justice. It does not know truth. We will truly enjoy happiness only when we share in the undisturbed communion that binds the divine Father with the divine Son.
Jesus, every bit as human as we are, has entered into that communion completely, in His flesh. Therefore, we fellow human beings can hope to get there, too.