Dear Brothers and Sisters,
It helped me a lot to spend more time this week thinking and preparing for the Ascension since it is celebrated on a Sunday this year. I was struck by the fact that Jesus does not go away. He physically leaves but he is not gone. You can say he is more present now than he was as man. Reading the Acts of the Apostles these weeks of Easter shows us that Christ is very alive and directing the operations of the early Church, and he does the same for us today. He was in heaven when he was here as man, no? So even as he returns to heaven he still is very much with us as we hear in the gospel (Matthew 18: 16-20).
So it makes sense in Luke’s version of the Ascension that 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? But they know that he is gone into life, not death, and is still present to them and there is no reason to be sad.
In Cardinal Ratzinger’s 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 worked in upholstery or with numbers. I was surprised with this even though I was well into my 40’s when she told me this. This small aspect of what kind of work my relatives did, showed me how little I knew of my family history. We need to know where we come from, and equally 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. Maybe the absence of funerals these days will bring these truths more to our attention.
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. 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 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.