When we think about the meaning of the Ascension of Our Lord, we have to do a big shift in our thinking. The natural temptation is to think of it as a departure. But that is precisely what it is not. Instead, we have to think of it in terms of presence. It means Christ present and living among his people, the same Christ who is in eternity.
We find a helpful analogy in our second reading from Ephesians. Here we read that God the Father has made Christ ‘the head of the Church, which is his body’ (Eph. 1.22b). Think of your body for a moment. Let me ask you the question: where, in your body, is your consciousness located? The answer has to be: everywhere. If you stub your toe you are in your toe. If you are hungry you are aware of your rumbling belly. If you hear a wonderful joke you will shake with laughter. Our awareness of ourselves is not just in our head – it is throughout us. And so, Christ the head of his body the Church is a living presence wherever his people are to be found. We are in him and he is in us. So much so that to persecute Christians is to persecute Christ himself, as Saul discovered when he set out for Damascus to crush the Christian community. On his way his life was changed for ever when he heard Jesus say in Aramaic: ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ (Acts 9.4, 26.14).
This living presence throughout the Church is the same Lord who has defeated death. This is the Christ of the resurrection, who takes us with him by faith and baptism into eternity. I am currently reading the diaries of Dorothy Day, 'The Duty of Delight' and I found her thinking about this very question. She writes: ‘His triumphant entry into heaven brought our humanity, in His, back to the Father’ (p 296).
So, in sum the Ascension means not a sundering but a uniting. Humankind is taken into the love of God. Heaven and earth are reconciled. This world of material realities is opened in a new and wonderful way to the spiritual reality of divine grace. The image of the physical movement of Christ from earth to heaven is really a symbol of how in him these things are brought together. As we hear Jesus say in the gospel today, ‘Know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time’ (Mt. 28.20).
Sometimes I hear is said that there is no humour in the Bible. Of course there is, if you bear in mind that first century Jewish sense of humour loved irony and is a very wry sense of humour. Look at the first reading where two men in white - angels perhaps – suddenly pop out from nowhere and chide the astonished disciples: Why, they want to know, are you standing here staring into the sky? (Acts 1.11). The message is clear. You have a task to do. Don’t stand around. You will be given power from on high. Get on with it. We remember that in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray that God’s will might be done on earth as in heaven. Now, in the Ascension, we see that heaven and earth are not so far apart after all, because he is with us. The Risen Lord in eternity is in our hearts, lives with us in the eucharist, ministers to us through one another. There is no place where he is not, for he fills the whole creation (Eph. 1.23).
Fr Terry is Parish Priest at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Brook Green, west London. His latest book: Ronald Knox and English Catholicism is published by Gracewing at £12.99 and is available on Amazon, on ICN's front page. To read Sr Gemma Simmonds' review on ICN see: www.indcatholicnews.com/news.php?viewStory=16114