Parting, as Juliet famously said to Romeo, is such sweet sorrow. But it is not just romantic lovers, who find separations hard. Moving, which we Americans notoriously do too much of, is widely recognized as one of the most stressful of human activities. If so, then the Ascension was surely the stressful move to end all stressful moves – not, of course for Jesus, the one moving, but certainly for those he left behind!
I am old enough to remember when, right after the Gospel on Ascension Thursday, the Easter Candle – our very visible symbol of the unique presence of the Risen Christ – was ceremonially extinguished, and then disappeared from the sanctuary. 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 know who it is that is missing). The point, of course, of all such customs and practices is to highlight that Jesus is now gone, and that we are left behind.
What exactly does it mean for us to be left behind? Does it mean we have been left alone?
Historically speaking, the Ascension commemorates the end of that short period - Luke quantifies it as 40 days - when the Risen Christ appeared several times to his disciples after the resurrection. Then, those appearances ended. And the disciples were left behind to do the work he had given them to do.
Left behind, but not quite alone, since Christ continues in his Church through his 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 Ascension invites us to ask where Jesus has gone to, now. He is, as we say week after week, seated at the right had of the Father. And, just as he is still really with us here, through the gift of the Holy Spirit and in the sacraments we celebrate, so we too are also in some sense with him there. So we pray in today’s Mass, 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 humanity enthroned at his side in heaven, God now has at his side in a sense the whole human world, which his Son embraced in himself and experienced to the full. 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 – not just about our being left behind, but about what is 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].
Photo: Early 20th-century Watercolor ceiling painting of the Ascension, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN.