What image comes to your mind when you think of the “ascension” of the Lord Jesus? I suspect that for many of us the word conjures up the notion of being “lifted up” and “taken away.” With the recent news about the retirement of the space shuttle, perhaps our images of Christ’s ascension resemble the space shuttle “lifting off” to outer space. If so, what seems to prevail in these mental pictures is the sense of absence.
The disciples of Jesus did have to adjust to a new mode of relating to Jesus after his resurrection and ascension. He was not available to him in the same way that he had been present during his earthly life, prior to his crucifixion. The Scripture readings for this feast give witness to a moment of transition in the disciples’ relationship with Jesus.
At the same time, the Scriptures assure us that Jesus’ resurrection and ascension mean that he is able to be present to us in an entirely new way. He continues to be Emmanuel – “God with us” – with us in all of the details and particularities of our individual lives. Luke makes that clear in the account of the early Christian community that he gives in the Acts of the Apostles. The risen Christ continues to be vitally present to the community through his Spirit, empowering his followers to give bold testimony to the Gospel and guiding them in their decisions. He serves as the church’s most effective “executive recruiter” by manifesting himself to Saul on the road to Damascus and transforming this one-time persecutor into the dauntless apostle Paul. The risen, ascended Christ does not leave the community in the lurch; rather he is faithfully present to it in a new, transformed way.
In our lives, it sometimes feels that Christ has gone away from us, that he has “lifted off” to outer space. At certain moments in our lives, we feel his absence more palpably than his presence. And that can be a very real experience that we need to bring to the Lord honestly in prayer. On this feast, though, we remember that Jesus is the one who himself experienced feelings of aloneness, of being forsaken. The Gospels tell us that he uttered a heart-rending cry of abandonment from the cross. This same Jesus, risen from the dead, promised his disciples that he would be with them always, until the end of the age. The Lord who is risen and glorified is closer to us than we are to ourselves, even in those times when we may not feel his presence. He is so inseparably united to us that we form the Body of Christ in the world today. May we become more attentive to his presence with us at every moment. And may we live in such a way that others will recognize his presence when they encounter us.
- Fr. Robin Ryan, C.P.