‘Now you see me, now you don’t!’ could be a good description for Jesus’s various appearances to his disciples after his resurrection from the dead. He materialises mysteriously in a garden and a house, on the road to Emmaus and on a lakeshore and it isn’t clear to them at first that it really is Jesus. And then, just as they recognise him and the marvellous reality of his triumph over death finally dawns on them, he disappears again.
But the Ascension – the return of the Eternal Word to the glory of the heavens – is different. This time, he took his leave of them properly. He gave them instructions, and promised that the Spirit would be poured out upon them, and blessed them. This time he was gone for good. There would be no more opportunities to put their hands in his wounded side, or to break bread or eat grilled fish with him. He was gone.
We might expect this to be a cause of great sorrow and grief for them. But the Gospel says the opposite – that they ‘returned to Jerusalem with great joy’. For this parting was not bereavement, but fulfilment. ‘Everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled’, he had said. He opened their minds to what they had been hearing in the scriptures all their lives. And then he commissioned them to bear witness to him. Faith always requires a response, and knowledge of God is not something to be kept secret, but is to be shared.
‘Everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled’, said Jesus. We heard one such psalm today. ‘Gabhann Dia ’n airde le gártha molta’… ‘God goes up with shouts of joy; the Lord goes up with trumpet blast.’ He is the One the psalmist was talking about. Begotten before all ages, he consented to exist in time and became human, humbling himself even unto death. He shattered the gates of Hades, calling humanity to share in the new life made possible by his resurrection. Now, all is accomplished. As the hymn puts it: ‘The strife is o’er, the battle done; the victory of life is won; the song of triumph has begun.’ And so, he returns to the place that was his from all eternity – the right side of the Father. ‘Tá sé ina Rí ar na náisiúin, tá sé ina shuí ar a chathaoir naofa’: ‘He is king over the nations, he reigns on his holy throne.’ His leaving is not bereavement, but fulfilment and a cause for celebration. As a sixth-century poet wrote:
‘So now, be joyful and radiant… It was for you I came down and went through all . . . It is for you again that I ascend into heaven, to prepare the place where I must be with you.’ [St Romanos the Melodist]
And that, dear friends, is the real good news of today’s feast. Just as his becoming human, his teaching and miracles, his suffering and death, and his resurrection were FOR us, so was Jesus’s ascension FOR us. ‘It was for you I came down and went through all . . . It is for you again that I ascend into heaven, to prepare the place where I must be with you.’
The eternally begotten Word took on human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, and when all had been accomplished, Jesus the Christ took that humanity – our very nature! – with him to the right side of God – to that ‘cathaoir naofa’ to which he has gone up with shouts of joy and trumpet blast.
‘We saw his light break through the cloud of glory whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story and heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted, he took us with him to the heart of things.’[Malcolm Guite]
After the Lord’s Ascension, humanity has had a place – the place of honour – at the right hand of God for all eternity. Jesus wasn’t abandoning his people, but rather, he was going before them, manifesting the gloriously beautiful fruits of his resurrection from the dead. Paradoxically, in his Ascension, Jesus didn’t become more distant from his people, but instead was making it possible for us to have a closer and more intimate connection with the life of heaven. As the second reading described it, he opened a ‘new and living way … for us through the curtain’. And where Jesus, the Head, has gone before in glory, we, the Body are called to follow in hope…
This joyful and hopeful Good News comes with implications too. In both the first reading and the Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that they are to be witnesses. They are to carry on his mission in the world. Like students reaching the end of their time at school, they must now step up and take responsibility. There’s something almost comic about the two angels appearing as the disciples watched Jesus ascend into heaven. ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?’ It’s as if they’re saying that the party is over now and it’s time to get on with the work of being his witnesses. He promised the Holy Spirit, to equip them for that task, and of course he would continue to be present when they gathered for the Breaking of Bread.
Jesus, the Risen Conquering Son, is with us as we gather today, as we listen to his word and as we celebrate the sacrament of his Body and Blood. And we are called to make him present too by loving our neighbours and serving one another. Those men in white robes who chided the disciples for standing there and gawping up at the sky would definitely have a challenge for us too if they appeared in this church this morning.
‘Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours.’ [St Teresa of Avila]
Martin Browne OSB