May 31, 2019

Christ the Cornerstone

The Lord ascends into heaven but remains close to us

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“ ‘As he blessed them he parted from them and was taken up to heaven. They did him homage and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy’ [Lk 24:53]. The Lord ascends, then returns to us with even greater intimacy through his gifts-of-self in Word and sacrament” (Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin).

Forty days after his resurrection from the dead, Jesus returned to his Father. After firmly establishing his victory over the power of death through numerous appearances to his faithful friends and disciples, the Lord blessed them, parted from them and was taken up to heaven (Lk 24:51).

The Ascension of the Lord which we celebrate on Sunday, June 2, is a great mystery. In fact, it is one of the most sublime paradoxes of our Catholic faith.

On the one hand, this feast day recalls the sad fact that Jesus is no longer with us. Having risen from the dead, it was necessary (he tells us) for him to assume his rightful place at the right hand of his Father in heaven. The Lord’s absence from the world as we know it should be a source of great sorrow, but St. Luke tells us that after witnessing his ascension the disciples “returned to Jerusalem with great joy” (Lk 24:52).

How can this be? How is it that the Lord’s departure from us can be an occasion for both immense sadness and profound rejoicing? The answer is the Holy Spirit.

In the Acts of the Apostles, we read this amazing account of the ascension:

“When they had gathered together they asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He answered them, ‘It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth.’ When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven’ ” (Acts 1:6-11).

Jesus returns to his Father so that his disciples can receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. He leaves them (and us) but he promises to return. The disciples don’t know when or how, and it is foolish of them to “stand there looking at the sky” (Acts 1:11) or, as Pope Francis would say, to remain sitting on their comfortable couches out of complacency, indifference or fear. The only authentic response to the Lord’s ascension into heaven is to receive the Holy Spirit, to rejoice and be witnesses “to the ends of the Earth” (Acts 1:8).

This feast is an occasion for both sadness and joy, but most of all it is a vivid reminder that we who wish to follow Jesus Christ cannot stand idly by gazing up to heaven. We must evangelize, giving witness to the presence and power of the risen Lord who appears to be far away from us—seated at the right hand of God in heaven—but who is actually closer to us than we are to ourselves. By the power of the Holy Spirit, and through the amazing grace of his gifts-of-self in word and Sacrament, Jesus remains with us, as Cardinal Tobin observes, “with even greater intimacy.”

Of all the blessed paradoxes of our faith, this one is especially powerful, especially today. During a time of increasing secularism, when “the absence of God” is all-too keenly felt in our homes, our society and even our churches, it is truly Good News to learn that “[t]his Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven” (Acts 1:11), that he is, in fact, right here with us—with even greater intimacy.

My prayer is that our observance of the Ascension of the Lord this year will bring us closer to Jesus and to all our sisters and brothers in the one family of God.

May we open our hearts to the gift of the Holy Spirit, and may we find real fellowship and joy in our belief that Jesus Christ, who left us 40 days after his resurrection, is, paradoxically, both with us now and planning to return. †

Local site Links: