The Ascension of Jesus Christ, related in the Gospels of Mark and Luke and referred to throughout the New Testament, can be taken as something of an awkward anecdote in the Catholic canon. “And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight…” (Acts 1:9).
There is something about the Ascension that is inconceivable, even for a miracle—something that is almost too fabulous about the idea and image of Jesus “flying.” For those who stumble over the Ascension, there is often an aspect of mythical fantasy or primitive whimsy involved in accepting such a thing. Can people really take seriously the account of a Man floating into the clouds? Is the Ascension worth the risk of alienating those influenced by a cynical realism?
This is the Faith, after all, not a fairy tale. Can we drop this story of Christ soaring through the sky?
C. S. Lewis took up this very question in Miracles:
Can we then simply drop the Ascension story? The answer is that we can do so only if we regard the Resurrection appearances as those of a ghost or hallucination. For a phantom can just fade away; but an objective entity must go somewhere—something must happen to it. And if the Risen Body were not objective, then all of us (Christian or not) must invent some explanation for the disappearance of the corpse. And all Christians must explain why God sent or permitted a ‘vision’ or ‘ghost’ whose behaviour seems almost exclusively directed to convincing the disciples that it was not a vision or a ghost but a really corporeal being. If it were a vision then it was the most systematically deceptive and lying vision on record. But if it were real, then something happened to it after it ceased to appear. You cannot take away the Ascension without putting something else in its place.
Lewis draws attention to the physical importance of the Resurrection, pointing out that the Ascension, like the Resurrection, required a Body—a point that cannot be dropped. While the Ascension of Christ is a moment of spiritual transcendence that may be difficult to relate or react to, it is also a material mystery. In other words, the Ascension is as much about the body as it is about the soul. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in Dogma and Preaching, “The expression of our belief that in Christ human nature, the humanity in which we all share, has entered into the inner life of God in a new and hitherto unheard-of way. It means that man has found an everlasting place in God.” The whole purpose of the miracle of the Ascension is that it points out the way for all flesh. It was a physical miracle involving a physical body that illustrated a relationship that is supernatural and eternal: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Read more at Catholic World Report