This 1913 folk-art rendering of the Ascension is one of 3 historic ceiling paintings at Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN.
When I was a boy, one of the things that struck me as unattractive about a religious vocation was the likelihood of having to move periodically from place to place, the way that priests in religious communities were transferred and reassigned with some regularity. As a child, I had a strong craving for stability, and I dreaded the prospect of ever having to move myself or say good-bye to someone I cared about who was moving. I admired – but did not envy – my grandparents, who had left behind in southern Italy all that was familiar and dear to them to cross the Atlantic as immigrants in America. And I admired – but again did not envy or desire to imitate – missionaries, who dutifully left their homelands for faraway places to fulfill the Risen Christ’s final command to his disciples.
Since then, of course, my life has taken all sorts of unexpected twists and turns, and I have moved around a lot more than I had ever expected. Meanwhile, modern technologies have made separation somewhat less final – and certainly much more manageable – than it was for my immigrant grandparents or past generations of heroic missionaries. But I still find farewells and departures – whether my own or that of some friend or colleague - extremely stressful. So I can easily imagine how distressed Jesus’ disciples must have been at the prospect of his departure. The fact that they kept looking intently at the sky as he was going, until two men dressed in white garments appeared to tell them to stop – that, I think, tells us how they felt. If saying good-bye is, in fact, one of the most stressful of human activities, then this was the good-bye to end all good-byes!
Some of us are old enough to remember when, 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 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 point of such customs, of course, was to dramatize that Jesus is now gone, and that we are left behind.
Historically speaking, the Ascension commemorates the end of the short period when the Risen Christ appeared periodically to his disciples after the resurrection. After the Ascension, those appearances ended. And the disciples were left behind to continue what he had started. 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 the break is not so complete as it seemed, our separation not so definitive. Jesus may have moved away, but somehow we are still connected. In fact the Ascension, the going away, is a sort of prerequisite for the next act, the history of the Church.
Of course, one obvious question is where has he gone? He is, as we say Sunday after Sunday in the Creed, seated at the right hand of the Father. The Ascension is the prerequisite for Jesus’ enthronement, where again we remain connected. On the one hand, while ascended and seated above, he is still really with us here, through the power of the Holy Spirit and in the sacraments we celebrate. On the other hand, 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 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 ascension, 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 already ascended, invites us to approach him – as the epistle says with a sincere heart and in absolute trust [Hebrews 10:22]. Confident that he lives forever to intercede on our behalf [Hebrews 7:25] and will in due time return again, we remain behind to continue what he started, to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth [Acts 1:1-11].
Homily for the Ascension of the Lord, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 8, 2016.