“You are here to say goodbye to us, and we don’t have a good word for it in English.
The best is ‘au revoir’ – we’ll see you again.”
—Richard M. Nixon, Farewell to White House Staff, Aug. 9, 1974
Parting with someone is hard. There are partings that are difficult. I remember the look on my future wife after spending our first Christmas together with her family, as the bus pulled away from its stop, her standing on the curb. I also remember the time I left my daughter, as she began her gap year and would be on her own alone for the first time, in another country. I left her in the lobby of the dorm to walk across the road to the bus station, board a bus, and drive off into the night.
Richard Nixon was right. We don’t have a good word for it in English. Because, normally, we hope that a parting is only temporary.
The 37th president knew, of course, that this was it: there was no political return for him. And, as time goes on and we get older, we also know that some goodbyes are final. The idea that a parting may not necessarily be short-term gains more traction, as we reckon with our own and other’s mortality. Will we ever see each other again? Are we just clinging, perhaps sentimentally, to what was? “Let’s just be glad we had some time to spend together//there’s no need to watch the bridges that we’re burning.” Will there be an au revoir?
The Ascension reminds us that not every parting is final. The Ascension is Jesus’ au revoir. His auf wiedersehen. His hasta la vista. His do zobaczenia.
For 40 days, Jesus has been appearing … and disappearing. His appearances have been selective: on the road to Emmaus, at least twice in the Upper Room, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The Evangelists add that he said and taught them many other things “not recorded” there, but it’s clear that the post-Resurrection Jesus is not staying around, at least in the way he used to. The best example of that is on the road to Emmaus. When they recognized Him “in the breaking of the bread,” He no longer remains before their eyes, except in the bread they have broken … which is precisely how he remains present today.
What truths should a Catholic draw from the Ascension?
First, he should recognize that the Ascension is not just something stand alone or something for Jesus. “This Jesus who had been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen Him going up into heaven.” The Ascension is eschatological: it’s inextricably linked with the Second Coming. Just as the Ascension comes toward the end of Eastertide, before we return to Ordinary Time, so Ordinary Time will end sometime in November with Gospels about the end of the world and the Second Coming.
The point is that Easter started something that is in the process of going on, a process that has a goal, a purpose, an end. Easter made Redemption possible. The Last Day is an assessment of what people have done with that possibility. Free men and women will have had that interval of responsibility called “history” to decide where they stand in relationship to a God who “so loved the world” that He died brutally and rose gloriously for its salvation, to be “judge of the living and the dead” (Creed). That’s what the Second Reading gets at when it says that Christ is “seated at the right hand of the Father.”
It’s perhaps appropriate that, about halfway between the Ascension and the end of the liturgical year, falls the Solemnity of the Assumption. The Ascension and Assumption go together: “He ascended not to distance Himself from our lowly state but that we, his members, might be confident of following where he, our head and founder, has gone before” (Preface). The Assumption (Ascension—Sequel) is simply proof that the process begun the Resurrection, carried forward in the Ascension, and destined for completion in the Last Judgment, has already picked up steam. Look at Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” if you want to see “Ascension—End Game” (and your possible place in it).
Second, the Ascension reminds us that our true home is heaven. “I go to prepare a place for you – in my Father’s house, there are many dwellings.” This world is not trash nor just a proving ground—we await “a new heavens and a new earth”—but Jesus reminds us that our destiny is the banquet feast of heaven. So, the Ascension should remind us of where our true homeland is, and kindle in us a fire that “where he has gone, we hope to follow.”
Third, so get on it, man! Get to work! The angels who appear to the Apostles as they gaze heavenward deliver a kind of mild rebuke, not unlike the slap Paul gives the Thessalonians when they decide that, if the Second Coming might be imminent, why sweat? “Why are you guys standing around, gawking at the clouds? He’ll come back the same way. So … get to work!” If the interval between the Ascension and the Last Day is what we call “history,” it’s salvation history. Jesus’ work now needs extension. Jesus’ mission just before departure is clear: ite, docete omnes gentes … “Go and teach all nations.” Be missionaries, “in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Those ends include schools, jobs, homes, public transportation, farms … wherever life happens. So, gentlemen, you have a lot of ground to cover and limited amount of time to do it. Stop staring at the sky, dash those last hopes about God putting you on the top of the heap (“are you going to restore the Kingdom to Israel now?”), roll up those sleeves, and get to work. The Church is missionary, and you just got your mission.
Fourth, be prepared. The Apostles got a task, but they also got instructions to wait for the next installment of the Paschal Mystery: “… for in a few days, you will be baptized by the Holy Spirit.” The nine days between Ascension and Pentecost are the Church’s first Novena (which is why I have long objected to the ecclesiastical version of the “Monday Holiday Bill” that transfers the Ascension to the Seventh Sunday of Easter). It’s a time of learning to prepare. And it’s a time for us to prepare: to remember that our baptisms and confirmations made us all priests, prophets and kings, with a missionary commission to witness “to the ends of the earth.” We can’t do it alone, just as the Apostles couldn’t, but Jesus doesn’t expect that – “I will not leave your orphans, I will send the Spirit to you” – and when He does, our response should be like the Twelve, bursting into the street just as they did from the Upper Room, ready to change a world.
Are we ready to change a world?
This article originally appeared June 5, 2019, at the Register.