The Ascension by Giotto, the Scrovegni Arena-Chapel, 14th Century.
First reading Acts 1:1-11
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 46(47):2-3,6-9
Second reading Ephesians 1:17-23
Gospel Matthew 28:16-20
When I was serving as a Deacon at St Theresa’s parish in Toowoomba, I fell in with a young family from Sweden who were spending a couple of years in Australia. They’d all converted to the Catholic Faith not that many years earlier, mum, dad and three primary aged children. They often invited me over to their house and, quite quickly we became close friends. They were there for me at a crucial period of transition in my life as I got ordained to the priesthood and took up the challenges of ministry. As our friendship deepened, I could see quite clearly the hand of God taking care of me, supporting me, through their love and friendship. But eventually came time for them to move back to Sweden and, I still vividly remember the day they left. I wept as they drove away to the airport and the street they lived in began to seem empty. I had become so attached to them, so at home in the warmth of their family, so supported by them that, I would say, I experienced a certain grief when they left. Perhaps you too can recall a time when you’ve experienced a sense of loss when close friends or family members move far away from us?
Well, in light of this, I find some of the details in the story of the Ascension to be both strange and telling. What do I mean? Well, today we commemorate our Lord’s Ascension into heaven – what seems, on the surface, to be the ultimate “goodbye”, right? The disciples have been with Jesus for three years, they were his closest, most intimate friends. They had been through the horror of his Crucifixion, and just when they had become witnesses to his Resurrection and things were well again, he leaves them! He is carried up into heaven in a cloud, according to our first reading. Shouldn’t this also be a difficult and sad moment for the disciples, as when we say goodbye to those we love? Yet it’s not. If you open up your bibles to Luke’s Gospel, which has the first of the two Ascension accounts, we’re told, “they worshipped him and then went back to Jerusalem full of joy; and they were continually in the Temple praising God” (Lk 24:52-53). What! Full of joy!? How strange! Were they that pleased to get rid of him? Certainly not. This tells us something, dear brothers and sisters, about the true nature and meaning of today’s solemnity of the Ascension. The fact that the disciples are overwhelmed with joy, and not just joy but a lasting joy – seen by their being “continually in the Temple praising God” – tells us that this was no mere going away on the part of Jesus! Yes, they saw him ascend and disappear from their sight, but it was no goodbye! This is confirmed by today’s Gospel reading from Matthew: Jesus promises us, “remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20).
So what, then, is happening at Jesus’ Ascension if he is not in fact leaving his disciples? Well, in order to know that, we have to consider what happens next. The Scriptures, and indeed our Creed, tell us that he ascended to the right hand of the Father. Consider that. Jesus’ human body, crucified and risen, still bearing the scars of the Crucifixion but no longer constrained by mortality and corruption, stands eternally before the Father interceding for us. St Paul writes in our Second Reading today that the ascended Jesus has been made “ruler of everything, the head of the Church; which is his body the fullness of him who fills the whole creation” (Eph 1:22-23). Then what happens? Next weekend we celebrate Pentecost, when Jesus’ promise is fulfilled. That the Father will send the Holy Spirit upon the disciples in the name of Jesus who is now standing before him, mediating. From the Father, through Jesus Christ crucified and risen comes the Holy Spirit, the advocate, who pours out the very life of God into the disciples. Jesus, who while on earth was confined by a single human body, and therefore inaccessible except to those immediately in front of him, is now omnipresent, “filling the whole creation”, as St Paul puts it.
Through his personal Spirit Jesus is now present and available to all people at all times and in all places, in a far more immediate and intimate fashion. He can now enter our very souls. How do you think the Eucharist functions? If Jesus’ body no longer existed, the Eucharist would not be real. But because Jesus is right now, standing before the Father, in the flesh, the Holy Spirit can project the very same body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus to us here and now and on every Catholic altar in the world! So much for the Ascension as a goodbye! My friends, as we stand this side of Jesus’ Ascension and of Pentecost, let’s take our cue from the Apostles: “they worshipped him and then went back to Jerusalem full of joy; and they were continually in the Temple praising God.” That’s why we’re here today! To worship him, to continually praise God in the temple, full of joy at the fact that he’s here with us in the flesh. We shouldn’t ask, then, why do I have to go to Mass every Sunday, but why do I get to go to Mass every Sunday? What a privilege it is to stand before God in his temple and taste the immediacy of his saving presence, the fruit of his Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension, present to us in his body and blood! Who are we to be given access to such a great gift? Do we truly realise what it is we have under our noses, day after day, week after week? What will we do in response?