“As he blessed them, he withdrew from them…” (Lk 24:51).
We can feel uncomfortable with the Lord’s Ascension: a body floating skyward, carried by clouds. But we needn’t.
He “withdrew from them”, that is the disciples. This happened, according to St Luke, near Bethany, on the crest of the Mount of Olives, some forty days after the Resurrection. He “withdrew from them”: this is the human, physical, visible side of the event; our side. It was the outward sign of something more weighty. It meant that he was no longer someone to see and watch, to hear and listen to, to touch, to have meals and journeys with. He “withdrew” from his disciples’ sense-perception. He was no longer around. And we, disciples two thousand years on, are in the same situation. Whatever our relationship with Christ is, it is different from the normal interaction we have with one another. It engages us otherwise.
But here’s the strange thing. We don’t find the first Christians mourning an absence. We don’t find them feeling orphaned or bereaved. We know how shattered they were by Christ’s death, but there is none of that after his Ascension, not even a hint of rueful sadness. On the contrary, they seem energised and focussed. As he withdraws, they worship him; they go down the hill and into the Temple full of joy and spend their time there blessing God. According to the Acts of the Apostles, they return to their base in the upper room and spend their time in prayer. Peter arranges for someone to replace Judas in the College of Apostles, and Matthias is chosen. The business of the Church goes on. If we then turn elsewhere in the New Testament, we find Christians in difficulties of all kinds, from within their communities and from outside, but we never find laments for the absence of Jesus. “Though you have not seen him, says St Peter, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice” (1 Pt 1:8). “At present”, says the Letter to the Hebrews, “we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honour” (Heb 2:8-9). So, though ascended, or even because ascended, we do see him nonetheless: faith has eyes. The early Christians did not grieve for an absence; they celebrated a presence, even when they were suffering, perhaps especially when they were suffering. They were, ever since that first Eastertide, buoyed up by something, by faith, hope and love as they would say, by the power of God, the Holy Spirit, by a sense that the Lord was with them, working with them, present to them, so close that any moment might bring him back.
This early Christian attitude is an historical fact, and it is most remarkable. Something was experienced by women and by men, by Jews and non-Jews, by Roman army officers and slaves, by rich and poor. It didn’t make fanatics of them. It didn’t make terrorists or warriors or ideologues of them. It seems, rather, to have created grateful, generous and generally gentle people. There was light in their eyes and kindness in their hands.
Jesus “withdrew from them” and, in the space he left, as it were, new dimensions of human existence opened up in those he left behind.
So, what was going on in Christ’s Ascension? There was another side to it, a divine side: he was “carried up to heaven”, says St Luke. Meaning what? Meaning that, in his human nature, he entered irreversibly into divine glory. His original coming down from the Father is now completed by his going up, his return, to the Father. Something has been accomplished, brought to its term, given another dimension. He returns to his Father carrying everything he is, but now in a position to share that without any of the confines of space and time. He is now unconstrained, universalised. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”, he can say (Mt 28:18). In the imagery of the Bible, the Messianic King, previously hidden or ridiculed, has now taken his throne and assumed government. The One who was a Priest from the beginning of his human life has now been perfected by suffering and entered the Sanctuary on high with the gift of his blood to celebrate a Day of Atonement once for all and exercise a perpetual, effective, all-embracing intercession for all. He now receives the Holy Spirit from his Father and has the mandate to pour him out on all flesh. He has become, irreversibly, the heavenly Head of his Body on earth.
When Christ “withdrew”, then, it wasn’t into the past or merely into memory. He was “carried up to heaven”, to the Father, to become a Eucharist, as it were, in the Father’s hands to be shared with the whole world.
It was this the early Christians sensed, with their new spiritual senses. It rendered grieving inappropriate. Their world had changed. What suffering remained for them, they “saw” that what Jesus did and suffered on the Cross had changed everything for ever. The Lamb had conquered, and victory was theirs. Since the Ascension and Pentecost, something filled them
There are probably more Catholics in Aberdeen now, certainly more Christians, than there were Christians in those first two generations. But small numbers did not discourage them.
Their Christian allegiance did not bring them any social or economic advantages. But that did not discourage them.
They found themselves excommunicated by the Jewish authorities and under suspicion from the ‘pagans’, sometimes harried by the Roman authorities. But this did not discourage them.
Their own Christian communities had their own share of internal strife, disagreement, scandal. But this did not discourage them.
I do not suggest they lived on a permanent ‘high’ and only ever sung Alleluia. Nor were they spared their full quota of life’s ordinary trials. But the New Testament evidences something else in their lives, something that sustained them, that they could call upon, that gave them buoyancy. There was something that, from the Ascension and Pentecost on, filled them, carried them, gave them an unquenchable resilience. One could name it many ways. My hope for now, though, is that we know it too.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, Thursday 26 May 2022