The only correct way to truly celebrate the Ascension is within the context of the Body of Christ of which Jesus is the Head and we are its members. Since the Body can never be separated from the Head, after Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, he remains with us on earth, as the last sentence in today’s Gospel passage (Mt 28:20) indicates: And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age. At the same time, we also are already in heaven with him, even though that promise has yet to materialize while we are still in our mortal bodies.
Here is an important corollary: with his Ascension into heaven, which began on Easter Sunday with many apparitions to his disciples for 40 days, Christ has reached the completeness of his glorification by the Father; yet he is still suffering on earth in the members of his Body.
St. Augustine writes that Jesus never left heaven when he took flesh to be among us and walked the streets of Palestine some 2000 years ago. Nor did he leave us when he ascended again into heaven. The fact that Jesus is in heaven even while he is, at the same time, on earth is evidenced by his own statement: No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man. (John 3:13)
The inseparable oneness between Head and Body will always be such that, although Jesus ascended into heaven alone, we also “ascended,” in a way, with him since we are sustained by unshakable hope because of our oneness with him in the Holy Spirit.
Some might wonder: if Jesus ascended to heaven on Easter Sunday, why do we celebrate the Ascension 40 days later? Numbers in the Bible always carry a powerful significance which, oftentimes, escapes us westerners. The number 40 in the Bible indicates completeness, fullness and all the necessary span of time needed for a task to be fully completed.
From Easter morning to the day of his final Ascension into heaven, Jesus had the very important task of “weaning” his disciples from reliance on his physical presence. During those 40 days, he had to teach them or, rather, he had to prove to them that he was still with them, and that they were still with him even though their physical eyes could not see anymore that tremendous and unbreakable unity between him, as the Head, and all members as the Body.
Those 40 days were days filled with his healing touch, his patience, his reassurance, so that the first disciples were, and all of us who follow, will always be filled with unwavering hope until the time when, we too, will experience the full glorification which Jesus, the Head, is already enjoying. We must be thoroughly impressed by the transformation operated by Jesus, the risen Lord, on his disciples during those 40 days.
The most dramatic transformation of the disciples was the removal of their fear of death. The risen Lord appearing to his disciples, talking with them, eating with them, allowing them to touch his wounds, turned frighten, peevish wimps into courageous, totally unafraid witnesses, completely undeterred even when facing the most horrific types of torture and capital punishments.
That transformation is still present among the throngs of true disciples of Christ. The number of martyrs, across the centuries, is beyond counting. As the hostilities and the hatred against Christians mount, so do their resolve and willingness to shed the blood for their risen Lord.
If we truly believe what St. Augustine has shared with us, today, about the mystery of the Ascension, our hearts should fill with hope. We should not envy the first disciples who could hear, see, touch Jesus, and witness his Ascension into heaven because the reality of his presence among us remains the same. We ought to believe that he is always with us, and that we are always with him.
Our hearts must still be burning inside us whenever his ministers explain the Scriptures to us.
Our eyes must still be open to recognize him in the breaking of the Eucharistic Bread at every Holy Mass.
Our minds must still experience peace and a burst of goodwill whenever our transgressions are erased from our soul in the power of the words of absolution.
Our eyesight must be sharpened to recognize his features, especially in the neediest of our brothers and sisters to lead us to prompt, joyous, loving intervention.
We should have no doubt that, whenever two or three of us gather in his name to pray to the Father, Jesus is with us. And we must see the Lord in the human features of those whom the Holy Spirit has anointed shepherds over us for we believe that whoever listens to them, listens to the Lord; and whoever rejects them, rejects the Lord and with him he/she rejects the Father who sent him. (cf. Luke 10:16)
Hence, we shall heed the Lord’s mandate of living by the tenets of the Gospel and preaching it, mainly with our life, anywhere the Lord sends us, even to the ends of the earth, because we are filled with hope; and we know that the Lord will be always with us and we with him, until the end of the age, and beyond.