That awkward moment when a friend comes to you seeking advice, you can see they’re desperate for hope, for something to hold onto and their faith is holding on by a thread and they look to you to provide that hope. Yet, in your heart, you too are holding on by a thread, confused and hurting and almost lost. You stand next to your friend looking up to the sky wondering, “Lord, why did you leave us?” As a youth minister, I’ve been in that situations more times than I could count.
Like the Apostles at the Ascension, I look to the sky wondering why he’s abandoning us. Lord, if you love us so much why in the heck are you leaving us? Why don’t you stay? We need you! Can’t you see how much we need you?
Have you ever pondered, I mean truly meditated on the mystery of the Ascension? I’m 38 years old, I’ve been a youth minister for almost 15 years and yet I’ve never once really pondered the mystery of the Ascension. Until recently it was one of the 6 Holy days of obligation. It is one of the most important feasts in our Church’s calendar of feasts (and we have a lot of feasts). And yet, most Catholics I know have gone more than surface deep into the mystery of the Ascension.
Why is that, I wonder? Perhaps because it’s rather simple, Jesus’ time had come to go to heaven and so he went; like our loved ones who’s time have come. But perhaps it’s also because in the depths of our hearts we wonder why he had to leave? A few weeks ago I decided it was time to teach my teens about the Ascension and I quickly realized I had no idea what to talk about to them. Every reason I could think of for the Ascension left me wanting.
He had to leave so that the Holy Spirit could come. Why? If the Father and Jesus are truly one, then so too the Holy Spirit; where One is, so all three are. Wouldn’t this life of faith be so much simpler if Jesus remained on earth and proved his existence and love to us by his mere presence? Imagine, Jesus sitting on a throne in Jerusalem and all the world could see, touch and hear Jesus alive and well. Someone has a question or doubt and they could simply go to Jesus, or better yet, in his glorified body he could bi-locate to them.
But then, where would our joy be? If you were a world class soccer player, would you want to sit and watch the World Cup from the stands or be on the field playing? We are called to be saints, to participate in our own salvation. The joy of evangelization is surpassed by very little in this world.
So what? I would give all that joy to make atheism irrelevant. I would happily lay down any excitement and fulfillment of watching a young person come to know Christ if just one of the terrible wars or violent extremist groups were eradicated because of the presence of Jesus, bodily and irrefutably present on earth.
All of the above is good and right but leave you wanting. It was Fr. Robert Barron who finally provided the answer, one I’m still coming to terms with as I write this post. Quite naturally we perceive heaven and earth as the ancient Greek philosophers did, as two dichotomous realms, completely separate from each other. When Jesus ascended into heaven he left us behind. Sure, he’s still with us spiritually, but what this really means in a practical sense is that he left us behind and sent us his Spirit. He still left us behind.
But praise be to God, he’s not Greek, he’s Jewish; or rather, the Jewish understanding of God is a bit more accurate. You see, as Fr. Robert Baron demonstrates, heaven and earth, while distinct from each other are deeply interlaced into each other. There’s a blending and melding of the two. It isn’t that Jesus left us so much as that he ascended into something more. It’s as if a triangle suddenly became a pyramid (again, a Fr. Baron reference). Those of us who are two-dimensional wouldn’t even begin to comprehend the pyramid.
Heaven and earth are one, or rather, are in the process of becoming one and the Ascension of Christ is what makes that possible. His glorified body is the beginning of the melding of created, human, earthly nature into the spiritual nature of God. It is the adoption of humanity by Divinity. We are sons and daughters of the Father because Jesus not only took upon himself our humanity but because he raised it up into divinity.
2,000 years ago a wise Jewish rabbi was asked by his disciples how to pray and he replied, “Thy kingdom come, the will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” May God’s will be made a reality on earth as it is in heaven. May earth become heaven! The Ascension isn’t the departing of Jesus. It is the reunification of heaven and earth! Jesus didn’t leave us, he merged us into the life of the Trinity!
So what does this mean? It means that when we preach the Gospel, the Good News, we make the kingdom of God truly present; we become the hands and feet of Christ and overlay heaven upon earth. So, as I sit there with my friend, both of us desperate for hope, we look towards the heavens searching for answers and find them in the presence of our faith: his faith, my faith, our oneness of hope. You wouldn’t seek help if you had no hope.
It also means that while we can’t see Jesus without the eyes of faith, he is closer to us than we can possibly imagine. It’s as if the triangle that became a pyramid has enclosed us within his fullness. We are the Body of Christ, not a body severed from its head but still attached! Remember, Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. He isn’t “God with us for 33 years and then God in heaven”, away from us. But he remains God with us because heaven and earth have become mingled and united together and with each act of love we make this union more complete.
For me, this answer satisfies. I don’t fully grasp it, and probably never will until I’m in heaven, but it satisfies. I long for my Beloved, to touch him and hold him, to be consumed by him. And this longing, this “now and not yet” is what keeps me going, hoping for a simple “now”.