The Ascension (1775), oil on canvas. 81 x 73 cm. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
At 15, Lisa started becoming very anxious following her parent’s divorce. She and her younger brother lived with their mother and saw their father weekly. The arrangements were amicable. Shortly after the divorce her father had a stroke and was in the hospital for several weeks. Within weeks, Lisa started getting nervous when her mother went out to the shops—even for short periods (under an hour). She texted and rang her mother every 3–4 minutes to ask if she was alright, and when she was coming back to the house. Lisa’s story, related on a British medical website, illustrates a psychological condition called Separation Anxiety. It’s an extreme form of a common problem: the fear of abandonment. Many of us have worried about losing a loved one. It’s a common fear.
In Acts 1:1-11, the resurrected Jesus returns miraculously to his Heavenly Father: Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, tells us as the disciples were watching “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (v. 9). I wonder if the Ascension of Jesus filled them with wonder or fear. Probably both.
The first lesson of the Ascension was taught by angels who appeared to the disciples and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (v. 11). The ascension gives believers hope in the Second Coming. What goes up must come down. If Jesus had simply stopped appearing to the disciples, it would have created doubt about his promise to return.
What about Jesus’s promise to remain with his disciples? “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). How does the Ascension square with the Lord’s promise to remain with us? Jesus returned to heaven but his presence remains in several ways.
Because he is God, Jesus is present everywhere, even if we cannot see him. Theologically this is called omnipresence. His presence extends to all places. To God the Psalmist sings,
Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy face? If I ascend into heaven, thou art there: if I descend into hell, thou art present. If I take my wings early in the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea.
We see Jesus’s presence in creation and we hear it in the Word of God. In the pages of Holy Scripture, Jesus speaks to us and we meet him in its pages.
Jesus is also present to us in the Eucharist. The bread and wine of the Sacrament becomes his body, blood, soul, and divinity. It is our communion with him. The word “communion” comes from Latin, formed by the prefix com- (“with” or “together”) plus the root unus (“oneness” or “union”). In the Eucharist we become one with Jesus and each other.
Finally, Jesus is present to us in the Holy Spirit. Before ascending to heaven, the Lord promised to send the Comforter. This promise was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost (which we celebrate next Sunday) when the Spirit blew through the upper room like a hurricane and flaming tongues appeared. Since then, he lives inside all believers. In baptism, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that “the water of Baptism truly signifies that our birth into divine life is given to us in the Holy Spirit” (CCC 694). The Bible says, “Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal. 6:4). We should have no separation anxiety, knowing that we have been made children of God.
On this Ascension Sunday, let us remember Jesus remains with us. Because he is with us, we can have confidence and freedom from fear.