Throughout the centuries artists have provided us with vivid representations of the Ascension of the Lord into heaven. How are we to interpret these familiar images representing the Risen Lord ascending from the apostles to the outstretched arms of the Father? Are we to understand the Ascension as a beginning or an ending?
St Luke’s account of the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles understands the Ascension most emphatically as a beginning, the unfolding of a new chapter that involves every believer in the life of Christ. This event provides the pattern not only for the early Church, but for every generation, ourselves included.
Both the gospels and the Acts of the Apostles describe the period following the Resurrection as a time of expectation and prayer. The disciples came together in prayer and the celebration of the Eucharist. Such prayer was something more than mutual encouragement. It was within this setting that the Risen Lord revealed himself to his disciples. It was at the table of the Eucharist that the Lord raised the hearts of his disciples in expectation. They were not to leave Jerusalem; they were to wait for the Holy Spirit promised by the Father. Only then would the Holy Spirit come upon them; only then would they become his witnesses to the ends of the earth.
The Resurrection of the Lord invites us, as it invited the apostles, to a time of prayer and reflection. The Lord who had shown himself to his disciples over the 40 days leading to the Ascension, reveals himself to us in prayer and the celebration of the Eucharist. Jesus insisted that his disciples should wait, that their mission could not begin until the Father’s work had been completed in them through the Ascension and the gift of the Holy Spirit. In the same way our good intentions, be they for Church or family, can never succeed without a sense that we, in differing degrees, must confidently expect the enabling presence of the Holy Spirit.
The Ascension marked the beginning for which the disciples had longed. The apostles were to go forth, to make disciples of all nations. This work was not rooted in themselves. They had waited, they had prayed and they had lived in the presence of their Risen Lord. Only now could they go forth with the authority of his presence, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
For us also the Ascension is always a beginning, a beginning repeated many times in our journey to God. We wait upon the Lord, who at his chosen time enables us. The Lord ascended, not to abandon his Church but, through the Holy Spirit, to enable his Church to live and act through his presence forever.
Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians expressed, in very personal terms, the meaning of the Ascension for every believer:
“May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ enlighten the eyes of your mind so that you can see what hope his call holds for you, how infinitely great is the power that he has exercised for us believers.”
Let us pray that the Spirit might open our minds to understand the Ascension as our new beginning. Christ has not abandoned us as orphans. He is with us to the end of time. He goes before us, enabling our future with the triumphant power of his Resurrection.