The joy of the Ascension

St. Luke's account of Our Lord's Ascension into heaven is rather terse: "He parted from (the Apostles) and was taken up to heaven" (Lk 24:51). It is puzzling why St. Luke offered so little description of this singular event in history and great mystery of our faith. The next verses of Luke's Gospel are puzzling as well, for he wrote that after the Ascension, the apostles "returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God" (Lk 24:52-53).

Joy is likely not an experience we associate with the departure of someone we love. Would the apostles miss the Lord after He returned to the Heavenly Father? Certainly. But Jesus promised them that He would not leave them abandoned after His Ascension. For this the apostles, and we, too, are filled with joy.

Jesus told the apostles, "Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age" (Mt 28:20). Even as He is seated at the right hand of Our Heavenly Father, Jesus remains with all Christians, for He is the Head of the mystical body, the church. Like the apostles, we all are united in Jesus Christ when we live faithfully, serve others and follow His commands. Not only is He with us, but when we act as Christians, Jesus works through us, offering His grace to increase the love we have for Him and our neighbor.

Jesus also remains with us in the sacraments, through which He welcomes us, nourishes us, forgives us, heals us and strengthens us. We intimately receive Him - body, blood, soul and divinity - in the Eucharist. We visit Him in the tabernacle and the monstrance when we go to pray alone or with others in adoration. We experience His tenderness when, through the priest, He speaks words of forgiveness. Christ is never far from us when we seek Him.

Not only that, but Jesus sends His Holy Spirit to live within us as well, as He promised the apostles before His Ascension: "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you" (Acts 1:8). This promise is fulfilled at Pentecost when the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, descends on the apostles just as He descends on us at baptism, to dwell within us. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus unites Himself to us, enlivens us and fills us with peace and joy. The Spirit transforms us and in doing so renews the church.

A final reason for the apostles' joy, and ours as well, is that the Ascension foretells what will happen to us when Jesus comes again. Our Lord became man to redeem humankind, yet He took on our flesh not only to free us from sin but also to bring us to glory. Through Him, we see the promise of a resurrected and glorified body. Through Him, we realize the body's final destination is not this earth but rather in heaven, in the company of the Father and the Son. Through our faithfulness to Jesus, He brings us to the place He has prepared for us in heaven where we will experience a glory far beyond anything we could experience in this life.

So, while we are tempted to see the Ascension as a sad departure, the joy of the apostles reveals it is instead the start of the new and more intimate way to unite ourselves to Jesus. The Ascension is the initiation of Christ's presence in the sacraments and in His body, the church. It is the promise of the Holy Spirit. It is the revelation of heaven as our end, where we will be reunited with Jesus and all the saints, body and soul, in radiant splendor for all eternity.

No, the Ascension is not a time for tears. It is the beauty of Christ's promise that we are never alone and the revelation of our future of unending joy. Today is a day for jubilation. Christ has gone before us in glory. And He will return to us in that same glory to fulfill all He has promised. Let us turn our eyes toward heaven as the disciples did and go forth rejoicing in the Lord.

Fr. Wagner is Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde's secretary.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016