Moving Forward to Life
The Ascension of the Lord | Fr Richard Ounsworth contemplates today’s feast as a celebration of Jesus’s presence with us.
Something I’ve found myself saying a lot recently – I suppose because I’ve finally understood something I ought to have figured out years ago – is that we shouldn’t ever say that Jesus came back from the dead at Easter. This isn’t because I don’t believe in the resurrection, but because I don’t like that word ‘back’. Jesus didn’t come back to life, he went forwards to life – the new life of the new creation.
This is not just a trivial attempt to play with words, but fundamental to our understanding of the resurrection, and therefore of our own salvation in Christ. The first point to remember is that Jesus’s risen life is not the same as the pre-resurrection life, what Saint Paul calls the life we now live in the flesh. We can see that there’s something different about Jesus from the accounts we’ve heard in the last few weeks of the appearances of the risen Christ to his disciples. There one minute, gone the next. Unrecognisable and then recognisable. ‘None of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord’ (John 21:12), and so on.
You might point out that he still had on his body the marks of his passion – the holes in his hands, his feet, his side. True – and that is the second point to remember: Jesus’s resurrection doesn’t undo his crucifixion, it completes it. This is part of why we shouldn’t say he came back to life, as if the resurrection wiped away the crucifixion. This is especially important for us because we have to realise that resurrection lies the other side of crucifixion for us also: only when we nail to the cross our vanities, our follies and our wickedness will we enter into the life of the risen Christ. Only when we can say ‘I have died with Christ, buried my sins in the tomb, and now it is no longer I who live but Christ in me’ will we have gone forwards into the new creation that Christ has inaugurated for us and for the whole cosmos.
If we realise this then we can properly grasp the significance of the ascension. There is always a danger with today’s feast that we think of it as a convenient way of getting Jesus off stage. But it is almost exactly the opposite: it’s a celebration of Jesus’s presence with us, not his disappearance. Of course this is precisely what he tells us in today’s Gospel: ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ With us in our minds, with us in our hearts? Certainly, yes. With us in spirit, indeed. But in the Spirit, and that means not ‘rather than in the body.’ Far from being less real, less bodily than when he was with his disciples in Galilee and in Jerusalem, his presence with us now is more real and more bodily.
As I said, there is something mysterious about the risen body – it seems to be eminently tangible, and yet can pass through locked doors. Precisely how it is present is for the time being a mystery, and we only have some clues. One of these, of course, is the Eucharist, for here Christ is truly, bodily, really present at every Mass, in every tabernacle. Another, which Saint Paul tells us about in our second reading today, is his presence in the Church. The Church is the body of Christ, ‘the fullness of him who fills all in all.
That doesn’t mean that the Church is a substitute for Jesus’s bodily presence. It means that wherever the Church is present, preaching the Gospel as he commanded, bringing the love and mercy of God, shown to us on the cross, into the darkness of people’s lives, there indeed Christ is to be found. We are members of that body, that authentic, powerful presence of Christ, when we leave behind our sins and move forwards into new life. Already in this life, strengthened by the gift of the Eucharist, we have a foretaste of the fullness of the resurrection life, when we turn from our sins and back to God, and allow the life of Christ to make itself felt in and through our loving presence in the world.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a window from Covington Cathedral in Kentucky, USA.