There is a famous phrase written by St. Leo the Great about the Ascension of our Lord: “When Jesus Christ took flesh like ours to come among us, he never left the Father’s side. And when he ascended back to be at the right hand of the Father, he never abandoned us. He is still with us to the end of the age.”
Or, as Jesus himself assures us in John 14: 18 ”I will not leave you orphans.”
The main significance of this feast of the Ascension is not a lifting up of Jesus Christ into the sky and out of sight above the clouds, but rather one of completion, of closure and of spiritual coming of age.
Thus the image that should help us in contemplating the mystery of the Ascension is not one of an object going up and up past the clouds, but the biblical one of a mother eagle inciting her young to take their first flight into the freedom of the ample sky.
Deuteronomy 32:11 As an eagle incites its nestlings forth by hovering over its brood, so he spread his wings to receive them and bore them up on his pinions.
The forty days between Easter Sunday and the Ascension is a symbolic number indicating that it is a period of time deemed sufficient by the risen Lord to assure that we would be fully fledged for our flights into the freedom of the sky, i.e. the freedom of our Christian calling in life. Under his watchful eye, all of us, as the first disciples back then, are to be trained to leave the safety of the nest to explore new horizons and enjoy the freedom that he has won for us.
In concrete ways, the Ascension of the risen Lord equips us with the freedom that is the very essence of his Holy Spirit.
John 3:8 The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
If we are still slow in appreciating this freedom of the Holy Spirit that is available to us through the Sacraments, let us compare what the Holy Spirit has done and can do in us vis-à-vis what Jesus was able to accomplish when he was physically visible in Palestine before he was taken up to heaven. The number of those who cried out: “crucify him; crucify him” were so numerous that they swayed Pontius Pilate to execute him. Very few people believed in him and only those who received his Holy Spirit were able to bear witness to him to the point of shedding their blood for him. How blessed we are who believe without seeing the risen Lord with our physical eyes!
So, how much we are expected to enjoy the freedom of the Holy Spirit!
The Ascension of the Lord leads us away from having to rely on our senses as we relate to him and it helps us shift courageously from our innate tendency to touch and to feel to the one of relying on the Lord’s presence in new ways. They are all ways made available to us by the Holy Spirit and they all can enable us to test and increase our strength and self-confidence.
As a loving mother eagle, Jesus is always with us, but in ways that do not interfere with the exercise of our freedom and, thus, with our contribution to the good of the Community. The apparitions of our Lord during those forty days show clearly his loving intent to have us try our wings after we have received from his Spirit all that we need for our mandate and mission to succeed.
With this feast the Lord trains us to recognize him in the breaking of the Bread, in the burning sensation in our hearts whenever he explains the Scriptures to us, in the Community gathered for the Sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, and in many other modest, personal ways, recognizable by us alone.
There is even provision for healing from accidents and injuries that may occur during our flights of freedom.
John 20:23 Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.
And, most certainly, in the splendor of his risen body he gives us ample evidence of the absolute necessity for sufferings, his and ours, to be part and parcel of those flights done in freedom. The one thing he wants us to stay away from, absolutely, is paralysis, inaction, idle waiting to be fed in the comfort of the nest: Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? (Acts 1:11)
I think that today’s feast expresses God’s desire for us to graduate from religion to full-fledged trusting and adult, mature, tested faith in the risen Lord Jesus.
He wants to be proud of us. He wants us to profit the most from the presence of the Holy Trinity in our hearts precisely as we should experience it as need arises; at times as a loving Father of glory, at times as Jesus our brother who has been given all power in heaven and on earth and also as Holy Spirit of freedom and courage.
And, in case we wonder about the nature of our flights of freedom, Jesus, our risen Lord, is very explicit: once we are clothed with power from on high, i.e. with the Holy Spirit, we will prove that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
But this realization might leave us uncomfortable and hesitant. We would feel uncomfortable and hesitant because we would have to leave the safety of the nest. We would have to toss aside a relationship based on what we can see and touch and relate to Jesus by abandoning ourselves trustingly into the wind of the Holy Spirit.
Ascension is graduation time; it is freedom time; it is challenge time with the wind of the Spirit of Jesus under our wings.
Let us face it, let us admit it with more than a touch of embarrassment: we might have yet to leave the safety of the nest. Our bearing witness to Christ might have been so quiet, so timid that there is not enough evidence to convict us of being disciples of Christ if that were a crime. Maybe, nothing of what we have said and done as disciples of Christ and loyal members of the Catholic Church has roughed any feathers or made any waves. We might have fit comfortably, undetected, unobtrusively, slipping under the radar of the world’s scrutiny and judgment, time and time again.
Today, graduation day of our discipleship and of our witnessing to Christ and his Gospel, we are called to try our wings in freedom. The world out there is corrupt, decaying, imbued with the culture of death and surprisingly cowardly because so very self-centered.
It is time to stop being afraid of it. We have the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit within us.
The Ascension of the risen Lord calls us to be bold, intrepid in professing with our words and actions, i.e. with our entire life, that we are genuine, authentic witnesses of the resurrection and of God’s infinite love for all his children the world over.