The Ascension of the Lord
The readings from this reflection: Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-95; Eph 1:17-23; Lk 24:46-53
I remember the first day that I first walked through the doors at the seminary in St. Louis. My parents, four of my brothers, and I all took my things up to Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, and were greeted at the front door by Bishop Edward Rice (the Bishop-in-residence at the time). It was all so new to me, but I remember particularly well the feeling of watching my family leave, and knowing that this would be my home for eight years. In reality, I had never been away from my family for very long before, and yet, there I was, watching them leave me and return home, which was over an hour and a half away. Now, to be clear, it wasn’t as if they were gone from my life, certainly. Yet, there was a sense that things were going to be different, and that I would have to work more deliberately to stay in contact with, not just them, but with all of my loved ones.
On the surface, the Ascension can seem rather odd. It could seem that we are simply celebrating the fact that Jesus is leaving his disciples alone on earth. He is going back to heaven, since His earthly ministry is finished. However, it is a moment of particular importance to the disciples, because it is a moment in which things are changing, and Jesus encourages them onwards into their work of ministry.
The structure of the lectionary this Sunday is very striking. In the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel, we have one author: Luke. They are joined together chronologically, and the Gospel actually prefaces the first reading, where we get a more detailed account of Jesus’s Ascension. When you join both of them together, we are able to get a very accurate picture of what happened that day. If we enter into the readings, we can hear Jesus encouraging them onward to ministry. We can then see them watching Jesus ascend into the sky, and thus, leaving them alone. What did the disciples think as Jesus was leaving? Were they excited? Were they shocked that Jesus was going away? Did they worry that this would be as painful as the crucifixion when He was taken from their midst for the first time?
While we might reflect on all of these questions in reading through this Gospel, and even through the account of the Acts of the Apostles, we know that this was not Jesus becoming distant to them. Rather, He was becoming present to them in a different way. In this moment, they are being stretched and challenged to pay attention to the new way that Jesus was going to be present: in the Sacraments, particularly in the Eucharist, and by the power of the Holy Spirit in the Church, which we will celebrate soon in the feast of Pentecost (June 5, 2022).
In our present day and age, we can easily be overwhelmed by the many tasks, priorities, and even sorrows of life. We can start to become so bogged down that we aren’t gazing up at the sky, but more so at the ground, wondering where Jesus is, or if he is even present to us at all. The Ascension gives us encouragement by way of a reminder: Jesus is present with us. It reminds us that, especially in the moments when we feel doubt or discouragement, or even abandonment, that God is still with us. We simply need to push forward and to encourage one another that God is with us: He is with us in the Sacraments; he is with us in the Church, and remains with us always in the Spirit that he sends forth.
Truly, Jesus is not absent: He has ascended, yes, but that is so that he can be with us in so many beautiful ways. We also receive a reminder that, as Jesus ascends, he goes to prepare a place for us as well in the Kingdom of God. Even in this preparation, and what seems to be an absence, he does not leave us truly alone here, but continues to be with us in all sorts of new and wonderful ways
Father Belken is the Parochial Vicar of Immaculate Conception Church in Springfield and Associate Director of Worship & Liturgy. He is also a Regional Vocation Promoter and Chaplain at Springfield Catholic High School.