On Ascension Day Jesus withdrew his physical presence from his disciples. But physical absence does not mean the end of presence. The ascension of Jesus is his liberation from all restrictions of time and space. It does not represent his removal from the earth, but his constant presence everywhere on earth.
Physical presence isn’t everything. In fact, it can sometimes actually get in the way of intimate communication. Many of our disappointments in life are caused by the fact that seeing and touching do not always create the closeness we seek. Two people can be physically close, and yet live separate, lonely lives, because there is no meeting of minds and hearts. They are like shells on a shore.
On the other hand, people can be very close to one another even though separated by thousands of miles. For people to grow together there must be periods of absence as well as presence. In absence we see each other in a new way. We are less distracted by each other’s idiosyncrasies, and better able to appreciate each other’s true worth.
If we are able to be fully present to our friends when we are with them, our absence too will bear fruit. The memory of that presence, the warmth of it, will continue to nourish the other person. Thus, not only our presence but also our absence becomes a gift.
When we think of each other with love a spiritual bond is created between us, and we enter into a new intimacy. For those who love one another there is no such place as “far away”. I believe all of us have experienced this in these last couple of months during the pandemic.
Jesus’ ascension was not a journey into outer space, but a journey home. We must not think that he has abandoned us; that he once lived on earth but has now gone back to where he really belongs. If this were so then Christianity would be no more than a remembrance religion. Jesus has gone to God. During his earthly ministry he could only be in one place at a time. But now that he is united with God, he is present wherever God is present; and that is everywhere.
The first Christians understood this very well. They knew that Jesus was still with them, even if not in the same way as before. They believed he still shared their lives, and that death would mean being united with him in glory forever.
Still, we might look back with envy at the people who were fortunate enough to have seen the risen Lord with their own eyes. But the Gospels show that those who were in that enviable position did not truly know Jesus until the Scriptures were expounded and the bread was broken.
We Christians of the present day have those same means of recognizing the Lord – the Scriptures and the breaking of the bread. In the matter of encountering Jesus with faith a past generation is not more privileged than the present one.
Jesus was relying on the apostles and now on us to make sure that the Gospel was preached and lived. He needs us to witness to his presence in the world.