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The Ascension can seem like the strangest event in the life of Christ. Some great pieces of Ascension art emphasize that strangeness, picturing a pair of feet at the top of a picture with astonished Apostles looking up at the floating figure of Christ.
But if you think about it, it would have been even stranger if he stayed. Here are 10 reasons I can count.
If Jesus remained on earth, we would probably all go on pilgrimage to see him in his bodily form at least once in our lives. It would become a great story, like a Papal encounter. But we wouldn’t meet him daily.
It is easy to think that this world is all there is. But we are made not for this world, but the next, and we long for it until it comes. In the incarnation, Jesus showed that God could dwell and walk with us. In the Ascension, he showed that we could dwell and walk with God.
If Christ had stayed on earth, we would have waited for him to pronounce on every little thing that happened or do something about each thing that happened. After the Ascension, we have to conform our minds to his.
Jesus said “All authority has been given me on heaven and earth.” The Jewish people were awaiting a successor to King David, one whose kingdom would last forever. The Gentiles wanted a kingdom that would answer the deepest longings of their hearts for order, protection, and affirmation of their dignity. Both find that here.
By disappearing into the sky in clouds at the top of a mountain, instead of merely exiting the earth in some quiet way, Jesus makes the point that he will one day dramatically return, and that we need to be ready.
If Jesus was in a particular place, he would be closer to some people than others. At the right hand of Our Father who art in heaven who gives us our daily bread, he is equidistant from each; or, better, since heaven is outside time and space, he is intimately close to each.
Jesus left us, ascending to the Father, for the same reason our parents “left” us, sending us out on our own: We need to live the life we were given, test it and own it. We can’t do that without a separation from those who have been responsible for us.
Jesus wanted to be the head of his Mystical Body, the Church. He wanted us to be his feet, hands and voice in the world. If we could see his feet and feel his hands and hear his voice, that wouldn’t happen. Instead, he says with us in a way that allows us to become his body.
Without the Ascension, the Eucharist would not make sense. He couldn’t be on the altars and in the tabernacles of every Church if he didn’t ascend. On the other hand, without the Eucharist, the Ascension would make no sense. After all, he said, “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the world.”
Why is it a good thing Jesus ascended? So that we would receive power from the Holy Spirit to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.
So, stop looking at the sky.
Sunday’s readings may be strange, but the strangeness comes with good reason.
“God mounts his throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord,” says the Psalm. The Second Reading describes what that means. He is enthroned at the Father’s “right hand in the heavens, far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, and every name that is named not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things beneath his feet and gave him as head over all things to the Church, which is his body.”
What we should be is “witnesses” to him, living his life, says the First Reading, from the Acts of the Apostles. And what we should do is to “preach in his name to all nations,” explaining his life, says the Gospel, from Luke.
So, “Why are you standing there looking at the sky?” the angel asks in Acts today. “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”
It is time to stop day-dreaming, stop filling our hearts with our own solitary love for God, and stop sitting on the stores of faith and holiness we have been given, and start sharing them with the world.
Because he will come again, and he will demand to see evidence that we did what he asked.