In Luke’s Gospel after the Ascension of Jesus the apostles come back full of joy and they were continually in the Temple praising God. It is a strange reaction to the fact that they would no longer see their Messiah, and they would be on their own bringing the Good News to the four corners of the world. And they are full of joy? This is true since Jesus has not gone away into death, but into life. He is not defeated but raised on high. It is a joy similar to the joy of the martyrs, of Maximilian Kolbe singing in his starvation bunker, or the early Christians singing as they went to their death. Kolbe gave his life so that another prisoner could live, who was the father of many children. He could sing as he was starving to death. It is this same spirit that God wants to give to all his children.
In Cardinal Ratzinger’s little book on Images of Hope he speaks about of the Ascension as the rehabilitation of man; this feast can restore us in the image of how God made us. In some way the Ascension helps us to rise with him as the apostles did. It is not position or affluence or connections that makes a person great, but communion with God. The Ascension is a lifting up, a sursum corda, as we say every week in the preface ‘Lift up your hearts; we lift them up to the Lord.’ Many beautiful local churches help us to look up when we enter them, and that was their purpose, to raise our sights to heaven, and not to get stuck here on earth.
My cousin did a family tree several years ago and found that many men in our family were good in upholstery or with numbers. I was surprised with this even though I was well into my 40’s when she told me this. We need to know where we come from, and much more important: where are we going? Few people think of this much, or at all. Usually it takes the passing of someone close to us to turn our attention to heaven, and the after life. And even then the present day wakes and funerals often ignore this reality.
This feast gives us a wonderful opportunity to reflect on this fact. Only from the height of heaven can our existence be enlightened. Only from above can we see the whole tapestry of our life, which includes our weaknesses and disappointments, and how God marvelously uses them.
The Ascension reminds us of heaven, and of hell. Jesus is not ‘up’ in the solar system somewhere; he is with the Father in heaven. What does this mean? Heaven is by nature only what we have not made, and cannot make ourselves. It is a grace, a gift. Heaven can always only be given to man. Hell is to reject this gift. Hell is when a person rejects his status as a creature and goes into himself. He cuts himself off from others and only lives for him/herself. Hell is a ‘place’ that we choose, God does not send us there, as the Church has always taught.
This time between the Ascension and Pentecost is a time of waiting for the Holy Spirit to come upon us, and upon the whole Church, a time to reflect on where we are going in our life and to take it seriously.