In her novel, Gilead, Marilynne Robinson shares the fictional autobiography of Reverend John Ames who, looking back on a life of pastoral service, love, loss, faith, and hope, tells his young son:
Sometimes the visionary aspect of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it, or it opens to you over time. For example, whenever I take a child into my arms to be baptized, I am, so to speak, comprehended in the experience more fully, having seen more of life, knowing better what it means to affirm the sacredness of the human creature. I believe there are visions that come to us only in memory, in retrospect.
The New Testament is the story of the expanding vision of the early Church. Having lived alongside Jesus, Mary, the Apostles, and all of Jesus’ followers had to discern what his life, death, resurrection, and return to the Father revealed about who Jesus was and what God was asking of each of them and of the Church. But, the New Testament also shows us that this process of discovery and discernment didn’t take place in a vacuum—it was within the lived experience of the Church that answers to these fundamental questions began to take shape.
|The Ascension of the Lord |
by Giotto in the Cappella Scrovegni in Padua, Italy
An understanding of Jesus’ return to the Father, of his ascension into Heaven, was one of those visions “that come to us only in memory, in retrospect,” just like the experience of Jesus’ resurrection could only be understood after the disciples lived their Easter faith through years of praying, preaching, communion, fidelity, and suffering.
In his book Living Jesus¸ Luke Timothy Johnson reflected that “the withdrawal of Jesus is not so much an absence as it is a presence in a new and more powerful mode: when Jesus is not among them as another specific body, he is accessible to all as life-giving spirit.” Although, for many believers, the Ascension of Jesus seems to focus on his departure, the truth of the Ascension is that Jesus is still alive in our midst, but in a new way. As Pope Francis recently said, “He is no longer in a specific place in the world as he was before the Ascension. He is now in the lordship of God, present in every space and time, close to each one of us” (General Audience, April 17, 2013).
The Solemnity of the Ascension is a celebration of two promises: Jesus has promised that he will send us the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, to guide and sustain the growth of the Church but the Ascension also contains a promise about what is now made possible for us in Christ:May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened,
that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call,
What are the riches of glory
in his inheritance among the holy ones,
and what is the surpassing greatness of his power
for us who believe,
in accord with the exercise of his great might. (Ephesians 1:18-19)
The challenge for us is to live in this promise. It is so easy for us to become weighed down by our day-to-day responsibilities and the legion of distractions and diversions that are such a part of our contemporary culture that the hazy promise of some future reality (however glorious) can’t really compete. And yet, as Christians, this is who we are: “Why do we on earth not strive to find rest with him in heaven even now, through the faith, hope and love that unites us to him? While in heaven he is also with us; and we while on earth are with him. He is here with us by his divinity, his power and his love. We cannot be in heaven, as he is on earth, by divinity, but in him, we can be there by love” (Saint Augustine of Hippo in Sermo de Ascensione Domini).
The Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord is time to celebrate the certainty of Christ’s presence among us with joy. Jesus disappears from the disciples’ physical sight so that he might become more present to the eyes of their hearts. As Blessed John Paul II observed, “He frees himself from the limits of space and time to become present to the people of every time and place, and to offer everyone the gift of salvation” (Homily of May 23, 1998).
We are called to foster the same spirit of discernment that the Apostles and the first generations of Christian practiced as they gradually came to understand who Jesus was and could be for them. The vision of the glorified Lord, a promise of future glory, is something to be realized and lived here and now.