When someone you love leaves you, to live elsewhere perhaps or to go to God, there is no question that that is very painful. But once you get over the pain, or manage to handle it, the memory of that person and their love is still present to you. For, when you love someone, their physical absence does not also remove your love for them. Through that love, they are still with you. With the passage of time, love can sometimes fade, it’s true, but normally, if the love has been deep, it still lasts.
The Ascension of Jesus into heaven is both similar to what I have described and much different from it. It is similar because the love of Mary and the Apostles for Him would never die. It is different because the very reason for the physical departure of Jesus is so that he can be truly present to everyone everywhere. His physical disappearance opened the way for his spiritual presence. This is not just a presence in the mind or memory “as if” he were really there. No, the Ascension of Jesus actually makes him present in a spiritual way, indeed in spiritual ways, to the whole of creation.
How? By the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit sent at Pentecost brings the presence of the Risen Christ into the world in a new way. The mission of the Holy Spirit is to make Christ truly present to the world. The Spirit does this in two main ways: firstly, by conferring on the Apostles and on all preachers after them the power to proclaim the words and deeds of Jesus; secondly, by conferring on the Church the power of the sacraments. The Holy Spirit in baptism implants the spirit of the person baptised into the Risen Christ. The same is true of all the sacraments in different ways. Likewise, the preaching of the Word who is Jesus is not just a bla-bla of sounds, but to the heart that is open it introduces Jesus himself into its depths.
Just as lingering at someone’s graveside will not bring them back, so the gazing of the Apostles into the sky would not bring Jesus back physically. That’s why the angels say to them, “why are you looking into the sky?” Jesus will one day return physically in glory, but your task is to go and preach the Word and administer the sacraments when the Holy Spirit of Pentecost has come upon you. And that’s what we see in the Acts of the Apostles. It is filled with the preaching and baptizing of the Apostles.
Of course, the reason that Jesus sends the Apostles out is to bring the power of his Spirit to the ends of the earth, that earth of which Jesus is now the undisputed Lord and King. The Apostles are not sent back to Jerusalem to talk to each other about Jesus, but are sent out to talk to the world. The strength that Christians receive in the sacraments is not for personal consumption but to make them witnesses of Jesus in the world.
In all this work of preaching and sanctifying, of mission and witnessing, it is Jesus Himself who is present through the Holy Spirit in us. His Ascension made this possible. The Ascension takes what Jesus accomplished in person and multiplies it innumerable times through the Holy Spirit in the members of his body, the Church. Throughout the centuries there are streams of martyrs and saints who have lived out in their own flesh the mysteries of the death and resurrection of Jesus, as we are all called to do. To the ends of the earth, men, women and children have died in the power of the Holy Spirit to witness to the Truth, the Person of Jesus Christ. The grace of martyrdom is not exhausted.
This is why the Church, constitutionally and of necessity, cannot be excluded from the public square. She would be rightly excluded if she just brought to the discussion some other point of view of human making. She would be rightly banned if all she sought to do was gain worldly influence and domination. But if she is doing what she was created to do by her Lord and Saviour, she cannot and must not keep quiet about the Gospel of salvation and the sacraments of divine grace.
But the Church only lives in her members, she is not some abstract corporate entity. And so, it is her members, anointed with the Holy Spirit in confirmation, whose role and task it is to bring the Gospel to the world, intact and without compromise. And each of us can do that because the power of the Ascended Christ has been given to us, too. Perhaps we might wonder at this. How can I, in my life, in my situation be a herald of the Gospel? It is a good question. But the answer can only be found by a deep searching of soul, by returning to the sources of grace within us and realising the dignity and the charge Christ has given us. If the treasure of grace is hidden in our hearts, it is nevertheless still there, waiting to be unearthed and spent in his service.
Lest we be like the man with the one talent who buried it out of fear, we need to go to Christ, to his Spirit, to ask for the light to see and the courage to step forward. Step forward to do what? Well, that’s something that has to be discovered and discerned on a case by case basis, but it will only be discovered if there comes first a strong and clear commitment to the person of Jesus Christ as my way, my truth and my life. What he then wants of me will become clearer. Only if I am truly and personally evangelized by the person of Jesus will I have the will and the ability to evangelize him to others.
Certainly, the hostility to Christ and the values of our time would make any witness to Christ feel daunted. But are our times really any worse than other times? Is the power of the Spirit any weaker in our times? The Ascension of Christ is no reason for Christian escapism; I suppose neither is the hostility against Christ a reason for escapism. We have been called by him; he has lavished the grace of his sacraments on us; he has given us the Gospel of eternal life; and he has sent us out into the world. By the Spirit of Pentecost, may those around us experience the presence of the Risen Christ through our witness to his truth, his love and his kingdom. May it make them long for Him as their Lord and God. For there is no other.