The Wednesday which follows the fifth Sunday after Easter is the day when, in liturgical terminology, we ‘take leave’ of the Easter feast. We commemorate the last day of the physical presence of the risen Christ amongst his disciples; and to honour this presence, to honour the Resurrection once more, the Church on this Wednesday repeats the service for Easter Sunday in its entirety. And then we come to the fortieth day after Easter, the Thursday on which the Church celebrates the feast of the Ascension. The Lord Jesus passed forty days on earth after His Resurrection from the dead, appearing continually in various places to His disciples, with whom He also spoke, ate, and drank, thereby further demonstrating His Resurrection.
On this Thursday, the fortieth day after Pascha, He appeared again in Jerusalem. After He had first spoken to the disciples about many things, He gave them His last commandment, that is, that they go forth and proclaim His Name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. But He also commanded them that for the present, they were not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait there together until they receive power from on high, when the Holy Spirit would come upon them.
It is rare, if one has lived through the joy of Easter time sincerely, that one does not experience a certain constriction of the heart when the day of the Ascension comes. We know perfectly well that it is one of the very great Christian feasts, and yet, despite ourselves, it seems like a parting, a separation, and that after it, our Lord is not with us in quite the same way any longer. The disciples did not react like this. They could have been overwhelmed with grief, but, on the contrary, they ‘returned to Jerusalem with great joy’. We, too, can try and enter into this joy of the Ascension. Why does the Ascension bring joy to Christians?
First of all, the glory of our Lord must be very precious to us, and the Ascension is the crown of his earthly mission. He has accomplished on earth the whole mission which he had received from the Father. It is to the Father that his whole being reaches out. Now he will receive from the Father the welcome that his victory over sin and death—a victory gained so grievously—has merited for him. Now he will be glorified in heaven. The glory and the desire of our Lord are surely more important to us than the sort of ‘perceptible consolations’ that we might receive from his presence. Let us know how to love our Lord enough to rejoice in his own joy.
Then the Ascension marks God’s acceptance of the Son’s whole work of reparation. The Resurrection was the first dazzling sign of this acceptance, and Pentecost will be the last sign. The cloud which today envelopes Jesus and ascends with him to heaven represents the smoke of the sacrifice rising from the altar to God. The sacrifice is accepted, and the victim is admitted to God’s presence where it will continue to be offered in an eternal and heavenly manner. The work of our salvation has been accomplished and is blessed.
Jesus does not return to his Father in isolation. It was the incorporeal Logos which came down among men. But today it is the Word made flesh, both true God and true man, who enters the kingdom of heaven. Jesus brings into it the human nature which he had assumed. He opens the door of the kingdom to humanity. As if by proxy, we take possession of the benefits which are offered and made possible to us. ‘[God] hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus’. There are places destined for us in the kingdom, if we are faithful. Our presence is desired and awaited.
The Ascension makes thoughts of heaven more immediate, more actual to us. Do we think of our permanent home often enough? For most Christians, life in heaven is no more than a supplement—of which they have but a very hazy notion—to life on earth. Life in heaven is seen somewhat as a postscript, an appendix, to a book whose text is formed by earthly life.
But it is the opposite which is true. Our earthly life is but the preface to the book. Life in heaven will be its main text, and this text is endless. To make use of another image, our earthly life is but a tunnel, narrow, dark—and very short—which opens onto a magnificent, sunlit landscape. We think too much of what our life now is. We do not think enough of what it will be. ‘Men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God…what he hath prepared for him that waiteth for him.’
At matins for this feast, we sing: ‘We who live in this world, let us feast like the angels…’. That is to say: let us open our minds more to the angels, and try to enter into their feelings, experiencing something of what they experience when the Son returns to the Father; let us go ahead in spirit and be near the Blessed Virgin Mary and the glorified saints, who will be our true co-citizens: ‘For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ’. Our lives would be transformed if, from now on, we threw our hearts over the barrier, beyond this world, into the kingdom where is found not only our own true good but also the good of those whom we love.
When the disciples had been separated from Jesus, they remained full of hope, for they knew that they were to receive the Spirit. ‘[He] commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father’.
The cloud surrounds Jesus, but this cloud is coloured already by the fire of Pentecost. Jesus, in going away from us, leaves in us an attitude which is one not of regret, but rather of joyous and trustful awaiting.
Jesus’s departure has been both an act of benediction and an act of adoration, the one corresponding to the other: ‘And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy’. This is what the feast of the Ascension should be to us. If Jesus withdraws with an act of blessing, and if we adore Jesus as he withdraws (we speak figuratively), we will get up filled with new power—which comes from this adoration, this blessing—and we, like the apostles, will return ‘with great joy’.