Perhaps, the trouble with the Ascension is that we think it is about the absence of Jesus – not his presence. After all, he prepares his disciples for his departure. He tells them that soon they will not see him. He tells them that he is leaving them. The accounts in the Gospels tell us he was taken from their sight, that he disappeared into the cloud, that he was carried up into heaven. In art, the Ascension is often pictured – a little oddly – by the sight of a couple of feet just visible, poking out of the bottom of a cloud. When I was a child, I remember being transfixed by the Ascension Chapel in the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. Rather than an image of Christ ascending, there are two feet dangling from a baroque cloud in the ceiling. It’s quite amusing! I remember wanted to hold on to them and swing on them, preventing the Lord from disappearing. It seems that the Ascension is the end of that time of appearances and presences of Christ. Now these 40 days are concluded, he is taken away, to be seen no more.
Yet if we remain only with this image, this idea, we entirely miss the point. You will see me, then you won’t see me, Jesus says rather enigmatically. I will not leave you without comfort, he says. I will be with you always, even till the end of time. Where two or three are gathered together, I am in the midst of them. This is my body, this is my blood, do this in memory of me – recall me – to make me present.
Before the Ascension, Christ was present in one place, now he is present in every place. Then he sat to eat with his disciples by the lakeside, now we receive his body and blood, the bread of life, in every country, in every city of the world. Then he walked the dusty paths of Palestine, now he strides through every land, borne by his Church. Then he dwelt in one man and one place, now he dwells in every person who has been baptised into his life. Then he healed a few of the sick, now he blesses millions of the sick through the sacrament of anointing. Then he taught the crowds in the market-place, from the boat, and on the hillside, now his words are read from every Church and chapel and pulpit. Then he prayed in solitude on the Mount of Olives, now he prays in every believer. Then his body suffered for us on the cross, now we receive his risen and mystical body and blood in the Mass. Then he showed love and compassion to the weak and vulnerable, now his people bring that compassion to every community of the world, caring for the hungry, the sick and the distressed, particularly during these troubled times.
Now – we do not need to gaze up into the sky: he dwells with us, he lives in us, and is not absent – but among us for ever, among us in our homes and in our isolation today.