Download or listen to The Ascension of Our Lord, “Absence and Presence” (Ephesians 1:19)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I don’t like it when the people I love leave. Whether it’s temporarily in this life, or because of death, there’s a hole left that is impossible to fill. Sometimes the razor edges of the hole can be dulled to the point where they don’t cut so deeply anymore, but the hole is still there. The only thing that can fill it is the presence of the person who is gone. So when the disciples are staring up into the sky, where they last saw their Lord—Jesus, who is risen from the dead and had just spent 40 days teaching them after His resurrection—when they’re standing there looking into the sky, they must have felt that hole open up in them: the absence of Jesus. A hole that could only be filled by the presence of the One who was gone. They, like us, must have thought that either a person can be present, or he can be absent. Either here or there. Either on earth or in heaven. But not both.
And so it’s easy for us to make Jesus’ ascension into His absention. If the disciples saw Him go into heaven, and if we can’t see Him, then He can’t be here. Isn’t this the bitter root of so much of what we do and why? We think Jesus is absent, so we had better get to the business of saving souls; we think Jesus is absent so we live our lives the way we want and put in our time on Sunday remembering a good man who taught us all some nice things; we think Jesus is absent so we become anxious and worried if things begin to go badly for us; we think Jesus is absent so the Supper of His Body and Blood becomes a mere remembrance meal, where we do our work of thinking about Jesus and “remembering” what He did a long time ago. But if Jesus really is absent, then the Church must decay and fall apart and die. If Jesus really is absent, then it is all up to us, and we should be able to predict how that will go. If Jesus really is absent—or, if He is present only according to His divine nature—then He is no longer the Jesus who promised to be with His Church to the completion of this age; then He is no longer the Jesus who was present with the Apostles; then He does not forgive sins here and now; then He has done exactly what He said He would not do: leave us and forsake us.
When Jesus ascends into heaven, He is not absent from us and from His whole Church. He is not like a loved one who has left, or who has died and gone to be with God. St. Paul writes that Jesus’ Ascension is actually the cause of His eternal Presence with the Church: “[God] raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places…and he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:20, 22-23). His Ascension is how God gives Him as head over all things to the Church. His Ascension is how Jesus can be with us always; His Ascension is how He can give His Body and Blood to the Church throughout all times and places; His Ascension is how He exercises the superabundant, surpassing, all-sufficient power of God in and for His baptized believers. This power by which God raised Jesus from the dead and seated Him at His all-powerful right hand is the same power by which He raises us from the dead now by faith, and in the end by sight.
It is true: only the living Presence of the One who ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God can fill the gaping hole of His absence. Good thing, then—thank God, then—that the mode of His absence, that we can’t see Him, is filled by the modes of His presence, which we hear, and feel, and taste. He didn’t just do His work of salvation a long time ago; He is giving out that salvation here and now. He is present with us now more closely even than when He was with the disciples before His resurrection and ascension. So until the time when He comes in the Cloud with power and great glory, we still lift our heads in the midst of everything that weighs us down, and we see our redemption drawing near ahead of time. Here He comes in the Name of the Lord, not in a Cloud, but in bread and a cup. Here He brings His redemption to us, because we cannot yet go where He is. Here He lifts grieving hearts and heavy hands; here He fills the holes left by those who have died in the Faith, because they must be where He is; here He draws along weary sinners to the point where He will meet us all in full divine power and the visible glory of a crucified and ascended Body. Look, ye saints, the sight is glorious! See the Man of Sorrows now!
So hang on, saints of God in Fisher and Euclid: the very same Jesus whom the Apostles saw taken into heaven will come in the same way they saw Him go. This fortieth day from the Resurrection of our Lord may or may not be the last, but He comes to us today nonetheless. And He will not fail to be present with and for us according to His promises, until He is present with us according to sight.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 5/7/13