Recently, riding in the car, I heard an old, late 19th-century Canadian folksong:From this valley they say you are going.
We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile,
For they say you are taking the sunshine
That has brightened our pathway a while.
So come sit by my side if you love me.
Do not hasten to bid me adieu.
Just remember the Red River Valley,
And the cowboy that has loved you so true
As I was listening, it occurred to me that the disciples might have had similar feelings as they watched Jesus go away. If moving is one of the most stressful of all human activities, then this was the move to end all moves – not for the one leaving, of course, but certainly for those left behind!
Some of us, I suspect, are surely old enough to remember when, right after the Gospel on Ascension Day, the Easter Candle – our very visible symbol of the presence of the Risen Christ – was ceremonially extinguished. Even more dramatically, in former days, in certain places, the Easter Candle (or sometimes an image of the Risen Lord himself) might be hoisted up into the Church’s roof until it disappeared. The people would stand and stretch out their arms, while a shower of roses would recall Christ’s parting promise to send the Holy Spirit to his Church.
Such quaint customs recall those familiar pictures of the Ascension that show the disciples staring up at an empty space – sometimes with 2 feet sticking out from a cloud (with holes in them, just to make sure we get it who is missing). The point, of course, is that Jesus is now gone, and that, like the cowboy in the Canadian folksong we are left behind. But are we also alone?
Historically speaking, the Ascension commemorates the end of the short period when the Risen Christ appeared periodically to his disciples after the resurrection. Then, those appearances ended. And the disciples were left behind to continue his mission in the world. But not quite alone, since Christ continues in his Church through his promised gift of the Holy Spirit. “I am sending the promise of my Father upon you,” the departing Jesus said to his disciples, “so stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high [Luke 24:49]. So Jesus may be gone, but he is still with us in a very real way.
Meanwhile, the point of the Ascension is where Jesus has gone now. He is, as we say Sunday after Sunday in the Creed, seated at the right had of the Father. And, just as he is still really with us here, through the power of the Holy Spirit and in the sacraments we celebrate, so we too are also in some sense with him there. As we say in today’s Eucharistic Prayer, we celebrate the most sacred day on which your Only begotten Son, our Lord, placed at the right hand of your glory our weak human nature, which he had united to himself. In having his Son’s human nature enthroned at his side in heaven, God now has at his side in some sense the whole human world which his Son embraced in himself and experienced to the full – the human world of our lives, our loves, our work, our play, our successes, our failures. And so now, having experienced our world with us (and in the process having invested it with more meaning that it would ever otherwise have had), God in turn now shares his world with us. For where Christ has gone, there we hope to follow. Where he is now, there we hope to be.
So the Ascension is also about us, as well as about Jesus – and not just about our being left behind, but about what’s now in store for us thanks to Jesus’ resurrection, and about what goes on in the meantime. The Ascension sets the stage for that hoped-for future, which we get a glimpse of already in Jesus, who, although ascended, still invites us to approach him even now – as the epistle says with a sincere heart and in absolute trust [Hebrews 10:22].
Homily for the Ascension of the Lord, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 12, 2013.