|"The Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ," by Piotr Basin|
It seems rather confusing: A Thursday celebrated on a Sunday. A historic fortieth-day event observed on the forty-third day. A pivotal moment in salvation history which might seem somehow superfluous.
Why is does the Risen Lord apparently abandon his disciples to return to the right hand of the Father? Wouldn't the whole "Jesus, I trust in you" thing be so much easier if Christ was still appearing to his disciples--greeting them on their journey of life, eating and drinking with them--as he did with Mary Magdalene and Peter and Thomas and the rest of the growing Church?
This event stands as the theological corollary of the Incarnation: The eternal Word, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who humbles himself to take on our humanity, now glorifies our humanity by returning it to the right hand of the Father. First, eternity enters time, the Infinite takes on finite form; then, with the Ascension, Christ raises the finite and temporal into the realm of infinite and eternal life.
St. John wrote that "What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life--for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us" (1 Jn 1:1-2). With the Ascension, what had been visible in the person of Jesus Christ now returns to the invisible realm of divine glory. The Word of life thus opens for us "access to the 'Father's house,' to God's life and happiness" (CCC, n. 661).
This return of the Son to the Father makes possible the imminent descent of the Spirit at Pentecost. It also allows the Word of life to become present as the promised Bread of life. From the right hand of the Father, the ground of existence itself, the risen and glorified Lord remains with his disciples in millions of tabernacles and hearts around the world--simultaneously, down through the centuries.
In addition, the Ascension allows the Word of life to touch us in and through those we meet: Pope Francis notes that "God's word teaches that our brothers and sisters are the prolongation of the Incarnation for each of us" (EG, n. 179). The new creation has commenced, and Jesus Christ shows himself to be present both in his disciples ("Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?") and in the least to whom they reach out in his holy name.
The Ascension prepares for the transition into the final stage of the Father's plan--the mission of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit being "brought to completion through the Church, which is Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit" (CCC, n. 737). Let's continue to see it, to testify to it, and to proclaim this eternal life--
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love!