ON EASTER DAY, angels tell the women at the tomb not to seek the living among the dead (Luke 24.5). They now tell the apostles not to keep on looking up to heaven, but to wait instead for his presence among them on earth.
Cally Hammond writes that, at the time, Jesus’s ascension must have felt like another bereavement. “True, he had blessed them, and promised them his gift. But then he had spoken during his years of ministry about the resurrection, and that had been no comfort, no bulwark against the terror and grief of loss at his death on the cross” (Glorious Christianity: Walking by faith in the life to come). For the apostles, the ascension of their Lord involves a further letting go, in order to receive his presence in a new fullness.
For, as Willie Jennings explains, Jesus departs in order to be more intimately present: “Jesus’ ascension is in fact God claiming our space as the sites for his visitation, announcing God’s desire to come to us. . . He ascends for our sake, not to turn away from us, but to more intensely focus on us” (Belief — A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Acts).
St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Ávila write of the painful periods in which God withdraws the means he has previously used to console and support us. Things that are good in themselves have to be given up, to draw us more deeply into the Paschal mystery — into a deeper and less self-focused reliance on the One who gives them. We have to learn to wait on God with patience and fortitude.
Mary supremely exemplifies this faithful and courageous waiting. Luke has not mentioned her by name since the infancy narrative — in which we see both her faithful patience and her courage. During Jesus’s earthly ministry, she has not always understood what he has been doing, but she has always remained faithful (cf. Luke 8.19-21, 11.27-28), even to the foot of the cross (Luke 23.49, John 19.25-27).
After sharing the joy of his resurrection, she must endure the pain of his physical departure. Yet we find her at the heart of the group of disciples, “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” as they wait for the promised outpouring of the Spirit.
From the beginning, Mary has known that faithfulness to Christ would involve disruption, pain, and sorrow (Luke 1.51-3, 2.35). Our epistle reinforces this message: far from expecting earthly dominion, Christians are not to be “surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you”. It is being “reviled” and persecuted that is a sign that “the spirit of glory” is “resting on you”.
In our Gospel, Jesus’s prayer for his disciples asks for the Father’s protection, as they face the suffering that is an inevitable consequence of making his name known in the world.
Just as St John teaches us to see the cross as a moment of divine glory, so, when Christ is glorified in his disciples, their lives will bear the marks of his Passion. “Their hope is the same as their danger, that where he is, there they will be also” (David Rensberger, Overcoming the World: Politics and community in the Gospel of John).
As the ascension speaks of God’s presence with us in suffering, it also reveals our eternal destiny. In the words of our collect, the one who abides with his suffering Church on earth has also been “exalted” with “great triumph” to God’s “Kingdom in heaven”. St Thomas Aquinas writes that, “just as the Son is immortal and sitting at the right hand of the Father from all eternity, so is he now become immortal in his human nature and exalted to the right hand of God.”
Jesus’s exalted body still bears the scars of his Passion. Just as we must follow him into a cruciform witness here on earth, so his ascension reveals our glorious destiny. As Dr Hammond observes, these two must be held together: Jesus’s suffering love is “infinitely more” than a moral example. His Paschal victory brings us eternal life. The “underlining meaning” of Jesus’s ascension is “the belief, all woven into one crystalline light of glory, that death is but the threshold into a new way of being.”