Ascension: A Story of Leaving Yet Remaining

Almost 40 years ago I met Jim and Pauline. Jim was a sergeant with the OPP and Pauline worked in a Catholic school in Barrie. At the time I was working in a parish in the north of Toronto. The three of us worked together in a marriage enrichment program. Over the course of the year I was there, we became very good friends. Then I left to return to Fredericton.

One of the remarkable things is that the departure did not end the friendship. For the past 40 years we have maintained the friendship through letters and phone calls and more recently through email. There were occasional visits to Toronto for me and to Fredericton for them. It was not always easy to maintain the contact but it did happen. Though we left each other’s physical presence we had not really left one another. Over the years there was a presence that continued. We continued to be with one another in our friendship, but in another way. There was a sense of being apart and together, of “leaving yet remaining” with one another

When the Scriptures speak of the Ascension, it may seem that Jesus is somehow leaving his disciples. But when we look more closely at the Gospel accounts it is evident they speak of leaving and at the time staying. There is a sense of Jesus leaving and yet remaining with his disciples.

The classic image of the ascension of Jesus is captured in the story that we find in the Acts of the Apostles. The writer of the Acts tells the story of the earliest Christian communities after the resurrection of Jesus. Acts begins the story with the account of Jesus leaving the disciples and ascending to heaven, or put another way with the return of Jesus to the Father. It is a story of “leaving yet remaining.”

After telling of the appearances of the risen one to the disciples and of the way in which Jesus promised them the gift of the Holy Spirit, the disciples are called upon to be the witnesses to all they have heard and seen, that is, to the message and the mission of Jesus. Filled with the promised Spirit, they are to take what they have experienced to the whole world, to the ends of the earth.

The disciples have been given two important pieces of their call as followers of Jesus. They have been promised the gift and power Holy Spirit, and they have been told that they are to be witnesses to all that Jesus has proclaimed. In some way, the ascension is the end of the appearances of the risen Jesus. He leaves them yet remains among them through the continuing power of the Spirit that they will receive. Thus, they are to be the ongoing presence of the risen Jesus for our world.

In every Eucharist we hear the words Do this in memory of me. As a community of faith we recall in living fashion Jesus’ whole life, death and resurrection, what we call the Pashcal Mystery. This week we have installed a new image at the front of our church. In the place where we celebrate Eucharist as a community of disciples we now see the figure of the Risen Jesus.

Each time we gather around the Table sharing Eucharist we celebrate together that Jesus who has returned to the Father, continues through the Spirit to be with us. Each time we celebrate together, we will remember and enact this “leaving yet remaining” story as disciples of this Risen Jesus.