The feast of the Ascension celebrates the departure of the Risen Lord from this world to the place reserved for him in heaven. As such, it is the continuation of his Resurrection and the completion of his victory over the forces of sin and death.
In Luke’s gospel account, the Ascension takes on special meaning because it not only signals the end of the earthly sojourn of Jesus but also prepares for the continuation of his work of salvation in the Acts of the Apostles, which is Luke’s sequel to his gospel. We recall that Luke’s gospel is dominated by the “journey” of Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem (9:51-21:38). Jerusalem is like a magnet for his ministry because it is there that we find the temple, representing God’s presence, and the altar, prepared for the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus.
This sacrifice of Jesus in Jerusalem seems to be the end of his career but in fact it releases the power of the Spirit, which flows from Jerusalem to the farthest corners of the earth. Though Jesus does indeed “leave” his disciples when he ascends to heaven, he assures them that he is sending the “promise” of his Father upon them. This is the Holy Spirit who will guide and strengthen them (and all of us) for witnessing to Jesus, in word and deed, everywhere in the world.
Those of us who follow Jesus belong to the period of the Church. Through preaching and the sacraments, the Church strives to make Jesus present among us so that we may be empowered to bear witness to the power of God to deliver us from the bondage of sin and despair. It is the Holy Spirit who guides and supports us as we attempt to live the ideals of our calling and to introduce others to the salvation won for us by the sacrifice of Jesus.
One of the principal roles of this Holy Spirit is to enable us to recognize how to live as Jesus did in circumstances that are far removed from the situation in first century Israel. It is the role of the Spirit to tell us then what Jesus would do if he were living here in the twenty-first century. Such guidance will not only give us courage and confidence but it will also enable us to understand what unselfish love means in difficult and worrisome situations.
It is truly remarkable that the disciples in the gospel story do not grieve when Jesus leaves them. Instead, they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God” (Luke 24:52-3). As we live in the Spirit and try to be sensitive to the Spirit’s promptings, we too can be filled with joy and find it fitting to express that joy with words of praise and thanksgiving. As we do so, we will surely attract others who will want to know our secret and will thus be ready to learn about the wonderful gift of salvation won for us by the love of Jesus.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.