Jesus said to his disciples, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
This past Sunday, I had the chance to do a small children’s chapel service over Zoom. After we had talked about our mothers—about how much we love them, especially on a day like Mother’s Day!—we dove right into the story of the upcoming feast: that of Ascension Day, which takes place on Thursday of this week.
Sometimes we miss those feasts that do not fall on the Sunday worship calendar. Ascension Day marks Jesus’s departure from this world after the resurrection. It takes place exactly 40 days into the Easter season. The Feast of Pentecost—the Church’s birthday—takes place 50 days after Easter, and it marks our transition into ordinary time.
As I told the children the story, we arrived at a page in the Children’s Bible that had a picture of a few forlorn disciples looking up at a clear blue sky, not a cloud in view. Jesus has left the building. The disciples are left to wonder as to what comes next.
I wonder what that felt like, the surprise of the resurrection compounded by yet another departure. In the gospels, we learn that Jesus was resurrected in his body, the body the disciples had known and touched: he is no apparition, but a real person bearing the marks of crucifixion in his flesh. And yet here, on Ascension Day, we remember that, though he came back to life—though we have the disciples’ witness and proclamation to back that up—we do not get to experience him in the flesh like they did. He left, again. We, the disciples who heard about him second hand, are still waiting for his return.
Elsewhere in the gospels, the resurrected Jesus turns to doubting Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (Jn 20:29). Yes, we do not get to experience Jesus in the flesh—what a gift that would be! But he has not left us without comfort: he lives on in our hearts as the burning, refining Spirit, a vision and guarantee of a world yet to come. He lives on in the breaking of bread, as we gather at the Lord’s Table each Sunday. He lives on in the hands and feet of those who follow after him: the people who carry his message forth to all the nations, proclaiming with great joy that our Savior lived, died, rose again—and who is, even now, preparing a place for each and everyone of us. “Having loved his own, he loved them to the end…”
—Fr. JavierTags: From the Clergy, Hope for the Journey