By Bishop David McGough
Solemnity of the Ascension Acts 1: 1-11; Ephesians 1: 17-23; Luke 24: 46-53 Within us all there is a ready and predictable response to the central events of the Gospel.
At Christmas we entered into the joy of Christ's birth, on Good Friday the desolation of his death, and at Faster the wonder of his risen life. The emotions with which we recall his Ascension into heaven are possibly less predictable. It is only natural to fear separation and withdrawal from those we love. In our lives we experience many separations, some of them painful. It would be strange indeed if such deep emotions did not colour our imagination of the Ascension. How does this event engage our feelings and imagination? What do we experience as we stand with the disciples as Jesus was withdrawn from their presence and carried up to heaven?
The Ascension challenges our understanding of Christ's presence. If our understanding of God's presence in the world embraces no more than the historical events of Christ's birth, death and resurrection, then it is difficult to imagine the Ascension as anything other than the abrupt ending of his familiar presence with his disciples.
The Gospel understands the Ascension from a very different perspective. Here, the Ascension is not an end but a new beginning. Rather than feeling abandoned, the disciples returned to Jerusalem full of joy, a joy rooted in the promise that they had received. "And now I am sending down to you what the Father promised. Stay in the city then, until you are clothed with the power from on high." We carry the same promise within ourselves. For us, no less than for the disciples, the Ascension promises a new beginning.
St Paul prayed in his Letter to the Ephesians for a spirit of wisdom and perception that might come to the full knowledge of what is revealed to us in Christ. With such wisdom we understand Christ's Ascension into heaven as the final unfolding of a life from the Father and for the Father. Far from being a departure, the Ascension is the promise of our continuing communion with Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus had prepared his disciples for this moment. In John's Gospel he had assured them that he would not leave them orphans, that his going to the Father was to prepare a place for us, so that where he was we also might be. This is the promise described by Paul as he prayed that we might see what hope his call holds, what glories he has promised the saints will inherit, how infinitely great is the power that he has exercised for us believers.
At the Ascension Christ renewed his promise of the Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit our lives are lived with Christ. Each and every moment of our lives has been raised up in him, lives with him in the presence of the Father. In the Spirit we truly understand that the Ascension is a beginning rather than an end, an opening rather than a closing. Faith opens our eyes to the future prepared for us by the Father in the Ascension of his Son. The journey of the Ascension is already begun in us as the Spirit leads us into the presence of the Father and the Son.
The Ascension is the promise that the mundane and ordinary moments of our lives can indeed be lived in the presence of the Father.