Mark 16:15-20, Solemnity of the Ascension of The Lord
At the end of each school year, in American schools such as Saint Louis University, the students, along with their networks of friends, scatter. And fly away. As a presider at a recent mass admitted with beautiful poignancy, how much we miss them when the school year ends.
I can remember that from my own college days. It happened especially if I was delayed in leaving for home. Empty halls and rooms. Broad, completely undisturbed yards of grass. We were all glad to have the year done, but at the same time, why did the buildings seem so deserted, and where was the buzzing and intermingling student life?
Maybe this is a hint at the hollowness Jesus’ disciples must have felt after the crucifixion. Especially the women who had loved Jesus so much. The passion had been the worst part, as we said last week. But now, nothing. What could ever fill that gaping emptiness?
Graduated college students find ways to cope with their new lives apart from each other, and besides, who wants to stay in school forever? But what sort of lives were Jesus’ followers to find after the very center of their lives had given way?
Well, you say, there was the resurrection. Correct. But we saw last week how confusing this was to the disciples. “I will not believe this unless I put my hands on him.” Doubting Thomas. And Jesus’ new presence did not last so very long, did it? There came this event called the Ascension.* It emptied the school yards and hallways for good. It was joyous, I suppose, but why did he have to go away so thoroughly?
Here is one way to look at it: he had graduated from life into Life.
Having tunneled through the narrow passageway of death—as you and I will do one day—he had given everything he possessed and everything he was to the Father out of sheer love. Instead of there being nothing left, there was humanity transformed: a divine/human person most thoroughly divine and human, now marked obviously with the totality of love. He was on his way back to the dynamic, swirling, trinitarian circle of love from which his humanity had issued in the first place. After the Resurrection he had lingered in order to tell us about it, to comfort us, to ease the loss. But what then?
“Stay in Jerusalem until my Spirit comes to fill your heart,” Jesus said to his followers (First Ascension Reading). They were going to be filled “with all humility and gentleness, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit” (Second Ascension Reading).
The immense act of modest love that was the resurrection was going to be poured into us and it would be called the Holy Spirit. Jesus would continue to be alive within the world after all, but in a different form: that of our own human bodies and those of our neighbors. Loss and absence would be turned into real presence.
In the Eucharistic Prayer and Communion we consent to have his body and blood mingle with our own body and blood. The Spirit comes to live in us, inviting us to accept his whole life, death, and resurrection, as these settle into us and into others around us.
This real presence now knocks on our doors, urging us, gently nudging us to say yes.