Hail the day that sees him rise!
Whichever way you look at it, the Ascension seems like an odd sort of a feast.
At first sight, after all, it commemorates a leave-taking; the dramatic departure of the Lord from the community which had so recently welcomed him back into their midst after his Passion and death. Psychological common sense would suggest, surely, that confusion and trauma, rather than rejoicing, would have been the disciples’ reaction, and there doesn’t seem much to celebrate in that.
Still more strangely, perhaps, according to St Luke’s account in the Acts of the Apostles, the disciples are called to account for what seems to be a perfectly normal response to a decidedly abnormal state of affairs: they are asked why they are standing gazing into heaven after the disappearing Lord. But why ever shouldn’t they? What else would we expect them to do?
Perhaps the key to understanding all this is to realise that this feast is intended, not to emphasise our increasing distance from Jesus, as he ascends “far above yon azure height” as the hymn puts it, but, rather, to remind us of his abiding closeness to us. It is a feast not of desolation and absence, but of consolation and presence.
If we are members of his body, even after his ascension Christ is inseparably united to us, closer to us than we are to ourselves, present with us not only in all our joys and festivity but also in all our sorrows and anxiety. As St Augustine puts it:
“Christ is now exalted above the heavens, but he still suffers on earth all the pain that we, the members of his body have to bear”.
This unity between us and Christ gives us confidence for the future: if Jesus really is the head of his body, the Church, his entrance into heaven surely gives us grounds to hope that this will one day be our destiny too.
And, paradoxically, that helps, perhaps, to make sense of that odd injunction to the disciples not to stand around staring into the bright blue yonder. Christ will return one day in glory, as we proclaim Sunday by Sunday in the Creed at Mass, and then indeed he will take his friends to be with him where he is. But, in the meantime, there is work to be done, in the strength of his Spirit and for his sake; the work of being his body, his presence, in the world he loved and came to save.