Loss is part of the human condition, and death is the most painful manifestation of loss. Today’s Feast of the Ascension invites us to face that experience of loss in a transformative way. In Ordinary Time, we celebrate the life and ministry of Jesus. Over the period of Lent and Easter, we have been remembering his death and resurrection in liturgy and life. As we come towards the end of the Easter season, the liturgy draws us into another aspect of the Mystery, that of the presence and absence of the Risen One. Luke’s Gospel ends with an account of the Ascension, while his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, opens with a variation on the same story.
Both accounts presuppose a pre-scientific, three-tiered understanding of the structure of the world. In this ancient view, God is in the heavens above and the prophet Jesus, like the prophet Elijah of old, is caught up into God’s realm from whence the Holy Spirit will ‘descend’ upon God’s people. This vertical (up and down) movement is balanced by a horizontal movement: Jesus’ family and friends who grieve the loss of their loved one are told not to keep looking up to the heavens (Acts 1:11). They have work to do: they must return to Jerusalem for the present and be empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue the prophetic ministry of Jesus, to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. They have to face the fact that the physical loss of Jesus means a new and different sort of presence and that they have a role to play in making him present in their world. Like us, the early Christians needed time to grasp each dimension of the one great Mystery of God’s life in their midst.