This feast of the Ascension of the Lord is really about the absence of Jesus. It celebrates his departure from this world. The New Testament tells us that after his resurrection he remained with his disciples for a while. While the gospel says it was forty days, the number may be more symbolic than literal.
The important point that the scriptures stress is that after the death and resurrection of Jesus, his disciples saw his crucified body alive, they heard him, they saw him eat. They shared meals. They knew it is Jesus. They knew he was risen. But he also told them that he would be leaving them.
But he wanted them to be ready to continue the work he had begun. They were to announce the Good News that the Reign of God had begun. They were to continue to heal and expel demons as signs that the Reign of God had begun. They were to proclaim forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus. They were to announce that he was risen from the dead. This is the work Jesus left them to do.
So it is the absence of Jesus (at least in his physical body) that is the catalyst for the disciples going forth in his name. As he is taken up from their sight, he commissions them to go forth to every part of the world. He has to leave in order for them to take up the work he has given them.
In his absence, a vacuum is created. Now we all learned in school, “nature abhors a vacuum.” The absence of Jesus creates a vacuum that the apostles fill. They take his place. They continue the same work he was doing. They are to minister in his name.
Notice that in the account of the Ascension, the disciples are not sad. They don’t plead with Jesus not to go. They don’t weep. They are not sad like they were when he said goodbye at the Last Supper or when he died on the cross. They understand now. They are ready to step in and continue his work.
We still experience the absence of Jesus. Yes, in some ways he is still with us. We feel his spiritual presence. We hear him speak through the Scriptures. We receive him in Holy Communion. We know that he is with us when two or three gather in his name. We know he promised to be with us until the end of time.
Yet, in a very real way he is absent. We cannot see him or touch him. He is not physically present to us as he was to the first disciples. His crucified and risen body has left this world. We are left with signs of his presence.
One of the great signs of the presence of the risen Lord is the community he left behind. We call it the Church, the Body of Christ. And since we are all the Church, every one of us, we are all called to be his presence for others.
Perhaps you know this beautiful prayer attributed to St. Teresa. It was set to music by John Michael Talbot.
Christ has no body now but yours
No hands, no feet on earth but yours
Yours are the eyes through which He looks
Compassion on this world
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good
Yours are the hands with which He blesses all the world
Yours are the hands
Yours are the feet
Yours are the eyes
You are His body
Christ has no body now on earth but yours
Our celebration of the Ascension tells us that the absence of Jesus challenges us to be his presence. Jesus continues to heal through us. He continues to preach through us. He continues to bring compassion through us. He still continues to feed the hungry through us. He still confronts evil through us. He inspires faith in others through us.
It is a challenge for every baptized person to be the presence of Jesus Christ in our homes, our schools, our workplaces, our parishes, our neighborhoods and our world.
Jesus becomes present in so many ways through his followers:
· A nurse brings healing through her profession, but a mother brings healing when she stays awake at night caring for her child.
· A student confronts evil when he refuses to allow someone else to cheat off his paper.
· A father inspires faith in his children when he accompanies them to church every Sunday and then discusses the Bible readings with his family.
· Any of us feeds the hungry when we share what we have with those in need or go out of our way to assist in a feeding program or another ministry that feeds the hungry.
· We bring the compassion of Christ to others when we take time to listen to the problems of a friend or neighbor, when we visit someone in prison, when we comfort someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one.
· And there are so many other ways that we can be the hands, the feet, the voice, the body of Christ in our world.
As we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord, the absence of Jesus, let us look for the many ways that we can be his presence in our world.