Ascension, Year A
Text: Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9; Ephesians 1:17-23; Matthew 28:16-20
“‘And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age,’”1 Jesus told his disciples, but only a few days later, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.”2 I think I’d have been looking up in consternation too.
How is Jesus present in my life? In your life? In the world? It’s literally the question of the age for us as Christians. The Holy Spirit, which Jesus promises the disciples, is the simple-sounding answer, but if I’m going to answer a question with a mystery, I should at least explore it a little. After all, while we’re encouraged to keep these reflections short, I think I have a bit more time yet.
Just as Jesus identifies himself with God the Father, saying “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,”3 he now identifies himself with the Holy Spirit, whom the disciples have yet to encounter. This introduces the mystery of the Trinity: that God is one, and yet is present to us in three distinct ways. Here in the Mass today, we also find God present in several ways: in the Scripture, in the Eucharist, and in the community.
I’ll carry that analogy a little further. On different days, different aspects of the Mass reach me more than others. I won’t ask whether it happens to you, of course, but I sometimes find my mind wandering during the readings, or go through the prayers of the Eucharist by rote, or pay less mind than I should to you, the people I share this with. On the other hand, sometimes one of these calls to me, drawing me in to a sometimes surprising degree. Each has its time, of course: the Liturgy of the Word precedes that of the Eucharist, and the times for us to be particularly mindful of each other frame and are interspersed within both; for me, it’s part of the importance of the music we sing together, for example. In the same way, we can be more or less present to God in different ways and at different times, and there are seasons for each of God’s persons. Before Jesus’ time, God the Father was most present to the Jews; in Jesus’ life on Earth, of course, the Son’s presence predominated; and now, we live in the age of the Holy Spirit. In each of them, the others live, and in each of us too, God lives in several ways.
Jesus’ Ascension shows us another glimpse of the mystery of the resurrection, by showing how for the resurrected, Heaven and Earth are bound together without a barrier. To underline the point, Jesus later returns to reveal himself to Paul,4 even though he is also enthroned in the eternity beyond time that is Heaven. Jesus prays to the Father that he “may give eternal life to all you gave him. Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ.”5 For us to share in Jesus’ death and resurrection is also to share in his ascension, because our resurrected bodies are not just of this world but also of Heaven.
So, to go back to the original question, how is Jesus—how is God—present in our lives? God draws and directs us toward this true life. Death and resurrection are a door, but you may have heard the saying, “Wherever you go, there you are.” Death is no shortcut to heaven; if it were, our lives here would have no purpose. The many challenges and distractions we face in life are not, I think, traps laid by a capricious God, but opportunities to grow, albeit not always in ways respected by the world. As I have seen many people contend with mental illness, I’ve learned that the core of a person, the kernel that is not buffeted by the physiological vagaries of brain chemistry and disease, is much smaller than what we think of as our “selves”; there is a spark of will which I have seen shine through suicidal depression and advanced dementia alike, though the rest of a personality may be distorted so much as to be unrecognizable. God looks on the heart, not the outward appearance,6 because that is our most real part.
I think St. Teresa of Ávila speaks from this part of herself when she prays, “Oh God, I don’t love you, I don’t even want to love you, but I want to want to love you!”7 It is at this level that God can move us most profoundly, though it is deeply hidden most of the time, maybe even from our own conscious selves. In baptism, we receive and honor God, and pledge to keep returning to that indwelling seed, which is linked to the other such seeds in all of us. The force that binds God to us, and us to God and so to each other, isn’t a compulsion, but a quiet, steady drawing: God’s multifaceted, mysterious, and eternally unquenchable love.
1: Matthew 28:20
2: Acts 1:9
3: John 14:9
4: 1 Corinthians 15:8
5: John 17:3
6: 1 Samuel 16:7
7: St. Teresa of Ávila, The Interior Castle.