There are three truths that we are called to remember on the feast of the Ascension: Christ has gone before us to Heaven; Christ yet remains with us; and, as the liturgy phrases it: “Where he has gone, we hope to follow”.
That Christ has GONE is the most self-evident of these truths: even a person without faith can tell that he is not with us as he was originally with the 12 two thousand years ago.
The fact that he REMAINS with us even though he has gone is, without doubt, a more subtle truth. A truth that can only be known by faith, and by ‘faith’ I don’t mean a vague feeling but I mean that definite response in our will and intellect to what he has told us and promised us. He promised us, as we just heard, “Lo, I am with you always, yes, till the end of time” (Mt 28:20). This he promised, and so this we know must be true –even if it cannot be seen as easily as the visibility of His absence.
We heard in our first reading, from Acts, about His promise to send us His Holy Spirit, and it by means of that Spirit that He is present in His other ways. But He is present also, at the physical tangible levels we know as Catholics, like the sacraments. That’s why we just heard how Christ sent out His Apostles.
Christ said that He had all authority, and He gave that authority to His Apostles. Why? So that they might take HIM, make HIM, present to all the nations.
That’s why He’d promised to be present by means of His apostles, His Apostles of whom He had said, “He who hears you, hears me”. His Apostles to whom He had given the command to celebrate the Mass, “Do this in memory of me…”, to whom he had given His mercy in saying, “Those whose sins you forgive they are forgiven them…”, and, as we just heard, He commanded to go forth and baptise the nations.
When I want to find Christ present today, I can look to His tabernacle.
When I want to find His forgiveness today, I go to a priest in Confession.
Christ IS with us.
And He is with us in a physical, tangible way.
As the Easter hymn sings, “Though we see his face no more, He is with us as before”.
The third and last truth I mentioned, “Where he has gone, we hope to follow”. This truth is the REASON behind the other truths. He has gone, “to prepare a place for” us. He remains, to lead us there. We cannot get there alone, unaided, we need His presence on the way.
And we cannot even know WHICH way is the way UNLESS He is with us to teach us. Which is why He commanded His Apostles to teach, why they appointed bishops to teach, and why they all know that it is not their own word they must teach, but HIS. Because otherwise it is not the way to HIM. Because what they must make present is not themselves, but Him. “Teach them to observe all I commanded you”, He said, because that teaching is a pivotal part of how He remains with us on the way.
The commands, the life of virtue, this is HOW we get there.
But WHERE we are going this, too we need to be taught. Until He comes in glory, we can only know of the greatness of the place He has gone by hearing the repetition of the words and teaching of what he spoke of: Heaven is beyond the grasp of our unaided mind, and so we need Him to tell us of it, tell us of the place, “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man, what God has ready for those who love Him” (1 Cor 2:9).
On this feast of the Ascension, this is what we recall: He is gone; He remains with us to lead us there; we hope to follow.