It is not obvious, at first sight, just why we “celebrate” the Ascension. It seems as though there’s nothing to celebrate. Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, only to leave them again, this time for good. What’s to celebrate?
There are two beautiful answers to this question. The first is in the second option given in the Living with Christ for today’s second reading, from Hebrews: “Christ entered into heaven itself, to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” He 9,24 According to the letter to the Hebrews, the Risen Jesus had to present himself before the Father, bearing the offering of his own human life as the necessary and sufficient condition for the forgiveness of all sins of all time. He is henceforth our High Priest, interceding effectively for us, before God the Father. We may not like the fact that he left us, but when we understand the reason why, it’s difficult not to consent to his departure.
The second reason is to be found in the gospel of John, in Jesus’ last, long discourse with his disciples. “Now, I am going to him who sent me… Because I have said this to you, sorrow fills your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor (the Holy Spirit) will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you…” Jn 16,5-7 “Truly I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to the Father… I will pray the Father, and he will send the Counselor, to be with you forever, the Spirit of truth. He will dwell with you and be in you… In that day, you will know that I am in my Father and you in me and I in you.” Jn 14,12…20 These words, together with the wonderful words of the Risen Jesus to Paul in the Acts of the Apostles: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” – These words round out the reality of our assimilation to Christ. Saul was persecuting the disciples of Christ. By the testimony of the Risen Jesus himself, we his disciples, are he.
Absolutely ingenious. Jesus left us in terms of his bodily, visible, palpable presence to us. But the Father sent the Holy Spirit to inhabit us in such a way as to make Christ present in us. In such a way as to make of us, his disciples, henceforth the presence and ministry of Christ to the world. Christ isn’t beside us. He is in us. We are transfigured and become, collectively, his continued presence to the world. More exactly, we are his presence to one another, as disciples, as well as his presence to the world. I would say this beats a mere bodily presence to us. Wouldn’t you agree?
We are one with Christ; we are Christ, present to his Church and to the world. That is what we are, in the Holy Spirit, for the benefit of one another as Christians, and for the benefit of the world. I can live with that. Yes, frankly, there are days when I would rather be with the Lord. But being a part of the Lord on this planet is a pretty close second. Yes, I am a very small part of Him. And yes, I am a very imperfect part of Him. But at the end of the day, all that matters is that we are really and truly parts of Him. He is in us, and we in him. And it all ends on the Last Day with us being with him again, in the manner of his presence to the disciples after his resurrection, and before his ascension. But as the title of a movie several years ago put it: “Heaven can wait.” Now is the time ushered in by the Ascension. Now is the time to be Christ for one another and for the world.