This Thursday, Catholics all over the world (except in those Dioceses where the Solemnity is moved to the following Sunday) will observe and celebrate the Ascension of the Lord. It is a day of obligation where we will gather once again on a weekday to be at Mass and to have a divine meal at the Lord’s Table with all and sundry. What does this Solemnity really celebrate? What is the Church trying to help her people to enter into with this observance? Do we find this something as meaningful?
On the most superficial level, it would be commemorating the day when Jesus left this earth in his post-resurrection form. When I was in the Holy Land on pilgrimage a couple of years back, we visited the supposed spot where Jesus literally ‘lifted off’ the ground on that day in history. The convoluted history of the Holy Land caused the site to be built and destroyed, built again and destroyed again by Christians and Muslims, till now, it is a holy site (to both the Muslims and the Christians) and the exact spot (supposed) of the ascension is now housed within an unused Mosque which welcomes Christian pilgrims who enter into the tiny octagonal structure for a nominal fee.
Our tour guide told us that the imprint on the stone is said to be that of Jesus’ right foot. Pilgrims can be seen removing their footwear to stand on that spot, and I suppose, image what it must have been like for Jesus.
Ascension Thursday cannot be just about the geographical spot, or about how Jesus left this world. It would be too facile to just celebrate it at that level, because we as Church are invited to reflect on what Jesus’ leaving us does for us who are his disciples, and to see how we can catch glimpses of the Ascension in our own lives and appreciate the wisdom and necessity of Jesus’ departure.
What the Ascension tries to help us to do is to identify with the times in our lives when our presence in the lives of others becomes more profound and to a certain extent, purified, when we are no longer hemmed in by our physicality. People who have lost very close loved ones will know what I am referring to. Their going away, through time, results in their being present to us in ways far more often and more intimate that when they were alive and physically present. This must have been what Jesus meant that his going away was something that would result in a joy for his disciples, because he was going to send them his spirit.
Those of us who have been away from home for a long period of time, be it for studies or work, will know that the fondness of family love and friendly bonding become far more intense in those times than when we were in close proximity. That old familiar saying that absence makes the heart grow fonder is never more true.
This applies very accurately to love, life and intimacy. What we want to control, what we want to be monitoring closely and giving very little freedom to often becomes stifled and smothered, hampered in growth and the ability to extend. We don’t have to look very far for examples. When our mentors and superiors are over controlling and don’t give us the scope to make mistakes and to learn from them, it can result in a negative growth.
So too for the spiritual life. Jesus can only send us his spirit if he leaves us. We would be far too dependent on his physical presence if he never did ascend, and with out his Holy Spirit, we would not be able to ‘perform even greater works’ than Jesus himself did. In fact, the Ascension really celebrates his great trust in us as his disciples, to carry on the legacy that he has left behind to continue to build his father’s kingdom.
Anyone who has lost a loved one will know the tears and heart-wrenching pain that separation causes. But there is a grace that also comes, albeit with the passing of time – a grace that, because of the mystery of love, our loved ones are more present to us than before.
Looking at the Ascension through this lens helps us to celebrate this solemnity with a deeper sense of joy and appreciation.