Nearly everything we know about God, incarnate in Jesus Christ, is paradoxical.
Whether the Ascension comes on Sunday or Thursday (as it still does in the Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark, Omaha, and Philadelphia areas), this Sunday’s readings have a direct application to real life.
They remind us that our Christian life has two dimensions: The part when we are in the real presence of Jesus Christ, in church, and the part where it’s just us, because he is no longer there.
Jesus teaches this lesson in the most dramatic way imaginable.
In the Ascension readings, we get to hear St. Luke’s take on the Ascension twice — once from his Gospel and once from his book the Acts of the Apostles.
Jesus tells the Apostles, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Then “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.”
What he does is the equivalent of an airplane pilot-instructor ending an in-flight training session by strapping on a parachute and leaping out of the plane.
It is, in fact, exactly the situation young people find themselves in when their parents help them move into their first apartment and then drive away.
In both cases, our first instinct is to stare at the ceiling and say, “What now?”
That was what the Apostles did, until a voice slapped them back down to reality.
“Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” ask two angels who appear on the scene. “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”
This makes the task much more digestible for the Apostles. They have to witness to the ends of the earth on their own, but he will return. The airplane instructor plans to radio back in. The parents will visit in a month.
The readings for the Seventh Sunday drive the point home even more. Stephen gets a window into where Christ is. “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God,” he says in the first reading. But “I will not leave you orphans,” Jesus says in the Gospel. “I will come back to you, and your hearts will rejoice.”
Not only will Jesus come back, but he will do something no mere human being can do.
The thing we have to remember about God is that he’s God. He is eternal and omnipresent; we are limited by time and space. That means that nearly everything we know about God, incarnate in Jesus Christ, is paradoxical: He is Almighty God and an unborn child; the Source of all Life and dead on a cross.
He has to act in these paradoxical ways so that our limited understanding can grasp his enormous magnitude. We human beings would never take responsibility if he stays around, so he leaves. But we human beings would never succeed without him, so he stays.
How? Before he ascended, Jesus gave the Apostles his real presence in the Eucharist and told them to wait for “the promise of the Father” that “in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
That means that we have the whole Trinity right here with us: The Father’s promise, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ himself, who the Psalm and Second Reading assure us, “sits upon his holy throne” with “all things beneath his feet.”
God is with us; God is hidden. We are powerless; his power with us is total. This is always God’s teaching style, from the beauty he painted into the night sky to the order he wrote into the universe.
The very last words of the Gospel reading reveal the key to how this system works.
The last words of the Ascension Gospel are also the last words of the entire Gospel of Luke:
“They did him homage and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God.”
Thus, Luke’s Gospel ends where it began: In the Temple. Way back in Luke 1, the very first scene that Luke shares is Zechariah in the Temple, hearing God’s promise that his salvation is on the way. Zechariah doubts it.
Here, the Apostles hear God’s promise and believe.
For them, the Temple is the place where they receive grace from on high to bring Jesus to the rest of the world.
For us, the church is the place where we rest with God and gather the graces we need to bring our faith to the rest of our lives.
We enjoy the real presence of Jesus in our churches so that we can address the real absence of Jesus in the world outside.
“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” Jesus tells the Apostles.
“You will be my witnesses in your homes, your neighborhood, and your workplace — to the ends of the earth,” he tells us.
It’s up to us. With him.