In my university days, philosophy and business textbooks were what I read; the former for personal interest, the latter for my business degree which also turned out to be the meal ticket I needed for raising a family and eventually settling into retirement. Although I was baptized into the Catholic Church in year 3 of university, the Bible was a book I seldom touched. To me, its appeal was nowhere near the philosophers’ profound insights and wisdom.
Not that I didn’t try, but I had a hard time convincing myself the Gospel stories were appealing. Some of them had such a fictional overtone that, frankly, I considered them almost an insult to my intelligence. For example, Luke’s Ascension account in which Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him from [the apostles’] sight” (Acts 1:9). Why did it sound so familiar? Oh, yes, those ancient Chinese Kung Fu novels in which a Kung Fu master often would appear to or disappear from people at will!
Fast forward a couple of decades to the mid-nineties. Without going into all the details of my personal conversion that God had mercifully granted me, let me just say that Philosophy was no longer the subject of interest to me. The joy of knowing God, His divine truth, and His will far surpassed the vainglory of showcasing one’s prowess in reasoning and rational thinking. The Holy Spirit had graciously pushed open the spiritual window of my eyes to enable me to behold the beauty of the Church’s teaching. She taught me that all sacred biblical authors wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They “firmly, faithfully and without error” communicated to us “that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to communicate” (Dei Verbum 11).
What truth does God want to communicate to us through Luke’s Ascension story? For the sake of simplicity, which the brevity of a Sunday reflection necessitates, we’ll focus on just one message that is central to the Ascension account, namely, Jesus’ new presence after the Ascension.
For many people, Jesus’ Ascension means he has forever departed from this world. Sure, he has been “exalted at the right hand of God”, glorified and everything (Acts 2:33). But what good is that, they wonder, if his bodily presence, shown so powerfully in the Gospel, has been taken away by the Ascension? In all biblical accounts, the Ascension is portrayed as a glorious ending of Jesus’ earthly journey. Be that as it might, something is clearly amiss now that Christ is no longer living among us, so the protest goes.
Apparently, his disciples didn’t see it this way. Luke’s Gospel account describes their reaction after the Ascension this way: “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” (Luke 24:51-52). “With great joy”? That’s the least likely reaction we would expect from them if they were disappointed by Jesus’ bodily departure. It could not have been the result of merely seeing Jesus alive because by then they had already witnessed Jesus’ resurrection. They would have known before the Ascension that Jesus was alive. What’s the real reason for their elation?
The answer to this question, as Pope Benedict XVI suggested, is to be found in Jesus’ last words to the eleven disciples according to Matthew: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20). What Jesus promises here is a new presence “until the end of the age”. A presence that is a thousand times more powerful than his former, bodily presence, which was subject to spatial and temporal limitations.
By “going to the Father” through the Ascension, the resurrected Christ has taken on a new presence through the Father, whereby “Jesus is no longer in one particular place in the world as he had been before the Ascension…now, he is present and accessible to all – throughout history and in every place”, the Holy Father explains (John 14:28; Jesus of Nazareth II, p.284). It’s a different dimension of being that is not spatial, but divine. Christ, in his resurrected body and through the Ascension, has taken on a new dimension of bodily being that transcends time and space. Now we can understand better why Jesus said to his disciples, while preparing them for his imminent Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension, “I am going away and I will come back to you. If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father” (John 14:28). In witnessing the Ascension and hearing Jesus’ departing word, the disciples have finally come to understand that Jesus is not abandoning them, which is why they rejoice.
Just in case this discussion is getting a little too abstract for some readers to grasp, let’s conclude by using a concrete example that will give everyone one of those aha moments. Think of the most precious Sacrament that Christ has left with us. We’re talking about the Eucharist - "the source and summit of the Christian life…by which the Church is kept in being” (CCC 1324-5). In its deepest mystery, the Eucharist is the manifestation of Christ’s new presence – his new bodily being - par excellence. The Eucharistic celebration, in the Holy Father’s words, “is a historical event [i.e., it takes place in history] that nevertheless bursts open the dimensions of history and transcends it [i.e., the event transcends space and time]” (Jesus of Nazareth II, p.273).