Matthew 28:16-20, The Ascension of the Lord
Are all endings sad? Most of them, I guess. A funeral, for example, is a sad ritual because it signals the end of a person’s earthly life. People left behind, especially those who are close to the person who had died, will move on with a gaping hole in their hearts, knowing that the world as they know it will never be the same.
A good movie, especially the one with a series of sequels and prequels, each one of them pushing you to the edge of your seat every single time, entertains you and then breaks your heart at the end. A part of you screams from the inside, not wanting something so good to end like everything else.
Relationships, no matter how complicated they can sometimes get, have a way of adding color to our life or even define us. When they end, or transform into another, we are often left inconsolably devastated. People cling to relationships even when these have ceased to be empowering or life-giving partly because endings are scary.
Are all endings sad? Most of them, I guess. But some endings are different. They are in a deeper sense really paradoxical. In other words, there are endings which are painful but also joyful at the same time. There are a few which, while they pierce the heart and break it, also have a way of making it whole, free and joyful.
Think of weddings, and how ladies are often seen weeping while smiling at the same time. There is simultaneously a sense of painfully letting go, while knowing at the same time that it occasions a fuller life for the person getting married.
The story of the Ascension of Jesus, as it is told in the First Reading for today, gives an example of this paradoxical ending. It is undeniably a story of a sad ending. It is a farewell scene. Jesus is saying goodbye to a group of disciples who have become his friends in the truest sense. One can imagine the pain in the hearts of his disciples because goodbyes have a way of feeding into the mind only the best parts of our experience with a person. In their hearts, the disciples knew that, without Jesus in their midst, life would never be the same again.
But notice carefully that the disciples, even as they grieve for the absence of Jesus, “returned to Jerusalem with great joy”, staying “continually in the temple praising God” (cf. Lk 24:52-53).
It was an experience that Jesus actually prepared them for. Prior to the Ascension, Jesus would tell his disciples that “It is better for you that I go away. If I do not go away, I cannot send you the Spirit” (Jn 16:7).
In other words, the Ascension had to happen in order for the Descent of the Spirit to take place at a later time. Jesus would be gone physically, but he would return through the Spirit. The limited body would be gone but it would be replaced with a limitless, boundless presence. Jesus had to go away so that he could come back in a fuller, better way.
Hence, in a profound way, the Ascension is really about a new presence. It is celebrated in order to remind us that Jesus is not gone. He is present in an even better way through the Spirit. Jesus is now present through the Spirit in the Church, in the community, in the family, in the workplace, in the wet market, in the mall, in the cave, in the Internet, in our smart phones and gadgets. Because of the Spirit sent to us, Jesus is now present in an unlimited way.
We don’t see the Spirit but we know that it is present. Whenever we witness an explosion of love, we know that it is the work of the Spirit. Whenever we are moved by a gesture of generosity, we know that the divine is moving in our midst. Whenever a movie, or a piece of poetry, or a love song, touches us and inspires us to become and to do better, we know that it is the Lord manifesting himself to us.
Are all endings sad? No, the Ascension reminds us that an ending may just be the beginning of something better. We pray for a better pair of eyes so that we can “see” the Lord present to us in an unlimited way.