Ascension Day is forty days after Easter. After Jesus’ rises again, he spends forty days with the disciples, and then “while he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” (Luke 24).
Imagine the roller coaster ride the disciples went through, from their disappointment at the death of Jesus, to their elation at his resurrection – only to see him ascend and leave.
Ascension Day helps us live in that moment. Jesus really did leave. In a very important and powerful sense, he is absent.
We know that he promised to send another Comforter, the Holy Spirit. We know that he is really present in the sacraments, which we call his Real Presence. We know that the Church is Body of Christ. We know that “when two or three are gathered together in my name, I will be in the midst of them.” And we know that he said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” We are not alone, and he is manifesting his presence to us through the Holy Spirit, through baptism and Eucharist, and through each other.
But…he is absent as well. He has not yet returned, and though the new time has dawned, it is not yet fully manifest.
We have a hard time with this tension. We tend to ignore the absence of Christ and act as if things are already made new. But there is a problem with that. We still have a sense of longing. Like the martyrs under the altar in the Revelation, our souls are crying out “How long, O Lord?” It is normal, and natural that we would feel a sense of incompleteness and longing. It shouldn’t surprise us, but it does.
One reason it surprises us is that we tend to be triumphalist. We talk and act as if heaven has already merged with earth, and Christ has already returned. We expect things to be perfect, if only we pray enough or try hard enough. And yet they won’t be perfected until later. We have to wait. We have to be at peace, even as we seek to be a presence of love to this broken world as wounded healers.
This sense of longing will be with us until we are fully re-united with Christ. But in the midst of this longing, he speaks peace to us. “My peace I leave with you…not as the world gives.”
Jesus knew that we would miss him. He knew that we would live in the tension of the already but not yet. He knew that we would sense his absence, even though we experience his comfort now.
So he gives us the gift of peace within that tension. We can settle into the tension of the now, knowing that we are not alone, even as we wait. Our task is to be at peace with the world as it is, while seeking to bring the transforming love of Christ into it.
The Ascension of Christ is a perfect blend of sadness with joy. The sadness is there, and we can’t deny it. We want to be with Christ, and we want him to be with us. The joy is there too, because he has not left us alone.
Christians can live in this tension with peace. Peace, because he is Lord. Peace, because he gave us the Comforter. Peace, because he will return to us. Peace, because we are his Body on earth, and can take his grace and presence wherever we go. We can bring this peace that passes all understanding to a world that badly needs it.
The challenge of Ascension day is to rest in the tension of the absence of Jesus, and at the very same time receive his presence right now. This paradox or mystery of faith may not always be comfortable, or be easy to describe, but it is real. The disciples understood this in some way, even with all their confusion. After Jesus ascended, they “worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” They knew that his ascension was not an end, but a beginning. It was a call to worship, and a call to serve, and eventually they would see that it is a call to take his presence among them to the ends of the earth.