“As he said this he was lifted up while they looked on, and a cloud took him from their sight.”
From a superficial perspective the Ascension might well be described as the end of a golden era. The Word of Life, born at Bethlehem, put to death on a Cross and risen in glory, would no longer be seen and heard by the apostles and that early band of believers.
The deeper truth, experienced in the life of the early Church, is that the Ascension, far from being the conclusion of Christ’s presence with his Church, was the opening of a new and more glorious presence.
The Acts of the Apostles, describing the manner of Christ’s presence in the Church, begins with the Ascension of the Lord. We are told that in the 40 days between the Resurrection and the Ascension Christ had been at table with his disciples (surely the Eucharist) preparing them for what was to come. “He told them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for what the Father had promised. ‘It is what you have heard me speak about: John the Baptist baptised with water but you, not many days from now, will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.’ ”
What Acts and the Gospels describe as “Baptism in the Holy Spirit” would become the manner of Christ’s continuing presence with his people. Through Christ’s death and Resurrection, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, so soon to be celebrated at Pentecost, we are all baptised in the Holy Spirit. It is important to note that from a biblical perspective “baptism in the Holy Spirit” was never a restricted gift granted to the privileged few. From the very beginning it was promised as the presence and power of the Risen Lord for all who called upon his name.
The reluctance of those first disciples to see the Ascension as anything other than an end is reflected in their questioning.
“Lord, has the time come? Are you going to restore the kingdom of Israel?”
It was as if those first disciples were already beginning to understand the time between Christ’s Ascension into heaven and his return in glory at the end of time as “lost time”, time when everything was on hold.
Jesus quickly corrected this misconception. Although the time of the second coming would be hidden from them, the intervening time, far from being “lost”, would be filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit.
“It is not for you to know times or dates that the Father has decided by his own authority, but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and then you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem, but to the ends of the earth.”
Paul’s prayer in his Letter to the Ephesians was, in effect, a prayer that all might understand the significance of Christ’s Ascension in their lives.
“May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a spirit of wisdom and perception of what is revealed. May he enlighten the eyes of your mind so that you can see what hope his call holds for you… and how infinitely great is the power he has exercised for us believers.”
The Ascension, far from being an ending, is our beginning.
“He (Christ) is the head of the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills the whole of creation.”
In the gospel account of the Ascension Christ instructed his apostles to stay in Jerusalem and await their clothing with the power of the Holy Spirit. They left the mountain full of hope, returning to Jerusalem with joy. May that same joy, that same hope accompany each of us on our journey.