This Sunday, we reflect on the Ascension of the Lord to Heaven. Our first reading from Acts speaks of the Lord being lifted up to heaven in a cloud and taken out of the sight of his Galilean followers. These followers then return to Jerusalem, to the upper room where Peter, John, Mary and the other apostles were staying to tell them of what they had seen. But why is the Lord Ascending?
An event such as the Ascension leads us to ask what is going on in this part of the post-Easter story conveyed to us by the authors of the New Testament. Why is it that the Lord leaves us in his earthly physical form? What does this physical absence of Jesus teach us about his new form of presence amongst us?
As we learn from John 16. 7, the Lord tells us that if he does not leave, ‘the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, will not come to us’. So, the physical presence of Jesus must be replaced by his spiritual presence, through the Holy Spirit, for a transformation to happen in all of us. This transformation is the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and minds and it forges a longing within us for the final coming of the Lord; a return of the Lord at the end of time, as we hear in our reading from Acts: ‘This Jesus who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’.
Such a tension between presence and absence is captured by that wonderful English proverb, ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’. There is something important about being physically absent from someone whom we love for that love to be forged into an even greater love. It is as if, somehow, the physical presence of a person can prevent the love we have for them from growing into its fullness. A similar experience is found in parents when their children leave home. That sense of absence or even a void in someone’s life when their child departs for pastures new, is palpable in the longing love a parent has for their child. But it is a necessary step of letting someone go, if the love between them is to mature. Absence does make the heart grow fonder.
In this absence, a new form of presence emerges. It is a presence forged by the longing we have for the one whom we love. In the case of our longing for God, this is a longing which is no longer satisfied by the earthly-form of physical presence. Rather, this longing is transformed into an unbounded desire for the other. It is this unbounded desire which gives us a foretaste of the love between the Father and the Son, which is the Holy Spirit.
Yet, such an infinite love conveyed by absence is a rather strange way to speak about the love of God. Surely, the earthly-physical presence of Jesus amongst his early followers was enough to communicate this love. So, what is the point of this absence that makes infinite love present?
To grasp what the Ascension is teaching us here, we need to realize that such a strange absence that conveys a new form of presence is not incidental in the story of our salvation. It is precisely this strange love which enters into the world in Jesus, as something which is not of this world; not reducible to an ordinary physical presence. This strange love is the glory which the Father and the Son had for one another ‘before the world existed’; before there was the form of physical presence that we are acquainted with now in our day-to-day experience. So, the very strangeness of this love makes explicit the kind of love that we are talking about when we are referring to the love of God. This love is not simply a love that we experience in the world, it is much stranger than that. It is a love which transcends the world and opens us out to the infinity of God.
The great mystics of the church have long spoken about the birth of this kind of love in the human heart by using strange language such as a ‘luminous darkness’, a ‘burning flame’, ‘silent music’, ‘learned ignorance’ and a ‘longing dart of love’. Clearly our human language struggles to express this inexpressible truth, because it attempts to speak about what cannot be fully articulated in human words, and yet which we are compelled to speak about: the infinite love of God.
So, we might think about the Ascension of the Lord not simply as a departing from us, but rather as a rather strange way of being incarnated amongst us again. But this time, not in the ordinary physical form of his former life on earth as Jesus of Nazareth, but in a new manner. Just as the Holy Spirit hovered over the virgin Mary at Jesus’s conception, so too at Pentecost, which we will celebrate next Sunday, the Holy Spirit will hover over the heads of all Jesus’s disciples and incarnate in them the messiah. The absence of God from us in the Ascension of Jesus is the way God has chosen to incarnate in all of us, the Son of God. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, who will come amongst us at Pentecost, we will all become God-bearers, like Mary to the world.
We might also think of this as the way in which God has chosen to make the particularity of the incarnation of Jesus a truly universal event. His particular absence from us in his body, is a necessary part of this new form of universal presence to us in the Spirit. It allows a new coming into being of God in the world to take place through the Holy Spirit. And, the wonderful thing about this new incarnation, is that you and I are the means through which this is made present in the world. The absence of the Lord in the flesh, is bound up with the presence of the Lord to us all in the Spirit.
As with those people of Galilee looking up to heaven at this Ascension tide, we too are addressed by the angels, ‘why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’. The physical absence from earth of Jesus is now transformed in our Eucharist by the coming of Jesus in a sacramental presence in the form of bread and wine. The invisibility of the sacramental presence of Jesus in the bread and the wine, is the new post-Easter form in which the sacraments incarnate at each Eucharistic celebration his new ascended presence amongst us. As we partake of his body and blood, we are transformed into his body and his blood in a divine exchange of gifts that makes our hearts burn within us. It is as if, that very road to Emmaus along which the two disciples walked unknowingly with Jesus at the first Eastertide, is the same way that we each walk when we come together to celebrate the Eucharist. Celebrating the liturgy of the word, the Spirit opens our hearts to the meaning of the scriptures, and as we break the bread and share the wine, the sacramental presence of the Lord becomes one with us. And, as on the road to Emmaus, only when he leaves us, when he ascends from the earth, does the church begin to recognize him in the sacramental presence of the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the wine. As we meet the Lord in word and sacrament today in our Eucharistic celebration, we meet a Lord whose very absence from us in the flesh, is made present in the sacramental signs of his body and blood that we share.
May we always be grateful for this post-Easter sacramental presence amongst us, that is a new form of presence which has been brought about by a physical absence that we remember at this Ascensiontide; an absence which truly makes the heart grow fonder.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.