They did him homage and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God. (Luke 24:52-53)
The departure of a dear friend seems hardly a motive for rejoicing. Some joy, perhaps, if the friend is off to do something great and wonderful, or has been delivered from some terrible fate. But when that friend has been the source of joy and happiness?
It's even more worrisome when the one who departs is not only beloved, but also the one in charge, the one with answers, the one who can respond truly, effectively, rightly to the troubles that face us. How often have each of us been placed in charge of something or someone — the office, the priory, an important project at work, a younger brother or sister, managing the details of a family reunion — because the one whose responsibility it is has been called away? It can be flattering, of course, and we may surprise ourselves at how well we have accomplished our task, even be glad to be of service. But, glad that the one who is directly responsible has been away, seeing this as a cause for great joy? Hardly. Inevitably, something comes up, some question, some puzzle, some unforeseen and unplanned for event, and we fear and find we have no answer. What should we do? What are we supposed to do? How long can we keep holding off a response until the one in charge, the one who knows what is to be done, can come and set things right? It's not that I cannot make decisions by my own, but I am supposed to put into place his decision, his plans, and they might not always be obvious.
So, the Ascension of the Lord may strike us as an odd motive for keeping festival. Wonderful for Christ, perhaps, but how wonderful for the disciples? How wonderful for us? The disciples, after all, were not tasked merely with waiting for the Lord's return. They were promised, and indeed given, power from on high, and they were to serve as his witnesses, speaking with authority those saving truths he had imparted to them, offering to a ailing and broken world the healing touch Christ had provided in his earthly ministry, one by one tearing down the stones of the fortresses of the spirits of wickedness, the principalities, authorities, powers and dominions, whose might had proven no match for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Nor, apparently, was this gift for them alone. As Paul reminds us, we too are to have knowledge of Christ, with our hearts enlightened. We too are to be witnesses of the saving teaching and deeds of Christ. We too are to know not only our call, but our destiny of glory with the saints and the greatness of his power exercised here on earth, not least in his deliverance of the sick and ailing from their ills.
So, with all of this responsibility placed on our shoulders, why would Christ's going away, departing from his earthly presence, be a good thing?
The truth is that not every absence is a cause for concern, not every parting a motive to feel abandoned. Even in our daily lives, we know the countless ways that our life is easier, our hearts rest more secure, and our actions can be done with freedom and confidence precisely because someone else, someone whom we love and whose word we trust, someone who keeps his promises, is even now attending to those things that we cannot.
The mother in the hospital attending day and night to her sick child who knows that her husband, her sister, or her dearest friend is attending to her other children and keeping her home in running order;
The traveller who can seek after lost luggage and confused reservations, knowing his wife can and will ably see to it that the family enjoys the day, regardless;
The soldier who endures difficult nights in the territory of a dangerous enemy, knowing that the family and people he loves and serves are, even now, enjoying a cookout, going to church, or doing their homework.
In these and so many other ways, we know that for one's beloved to be away, even when our own times and tasks are difficult and daunting, can be a cause not only for relief and assurance, but even of great joy.
So it is with the Ascension of the Lord, but in an even more wonderful way. Jesus did not depart from us to leave us alone and without comfort. He did not leave us a saving truth only to leave us to grasp at even the smallest bit of what it meant. He did not provide his hallowing and healing ministry only to withdraw it when he rose up into even. Rather, in the Ascension we can know that his whole work of redemption, everything he promised, all that we have hoped for even from before the day we knew his saving name, has already been accomplished in him. And that, surely, is good news! It means that redemption is not some future event, something we simply hope and wait for God to do. It means rather that, in Christ, redemption is already here, that the healing of the nations, the healing of our every ill, is already come to pass in the glory of his body and of the souls of the holy ones who await the resurrection. It means that everything he taught us is trustworthy and true, and we need not fear to bear witness to him and his saving teachings to all the nations. And if true in him, if already a reality in Christ our Head, then it is no less a reality here and now for us who are the very members, the limbs, organs, bone and tissue of his body. Our is already his call, ours the glory, ours the surpassing greatness of his power.
In the mystery of Christ's Ascension, our redemption, the final crowning of our return to God has been achieved in Jesus our Head, and we have cause for exceeding great joy. This morning at our altar, and every day of our lives, let us like the apostles in the temple be continually praising God. Let us clap our hands and shout to God with cries of gladness, for Christ our head is with the Father, and where the Head has gone, the Body cannot fail to follow.