The Mystery of the Ascension

Ronald Rolheiser
May 13, 2024
Reproduced with Permission

What is the Ascension? The Ascension is an event in of the life of Jesus and his original disciples, a feast day for Christians, a theology, and a spirituality, all woven together into one amorphous mystery that we too seldom try to unpackage and sort out. What does the Ascension mean?

Among other things, it is a mystery that is strangely paradoxical. Here's the paradox: there is a wonderful life-giving gift in someone entering our lives, touching us, nurturing us, doing things that build us up, and giving life for us. But there's also a gift in the other eventually having to say goodbye to the way he or she has been present to us. Passing strange, there's also a gift in one's going away. Presence also depends upon absence. There's a blessing we can only give when we go away.

That's why Jesus, when bidding farewell to his friends before his ascension, spoke these words: "It's better for you that I go away. You will be sad now, but your sadness will turn to joy. Don't cling to me, I must ascend."

How might we understand these words? How can it be better that someone we love goes away? How can the sadness of a goodbye, of a painful leaving, turn to joy? How can a goodbye eventually bring us someone's deeper presence?

This is hard to explain, though we have experiences of this in our lives. Here's an example: When I was twenty-two years old, in the space of four months, my father and mother died, both still young. For myself and my siblings, the pain of their deaths was searing. Initially, as with every major loss, what we felt was pain, severance, coldness, helplessness, a new vulnerability, the loss of a vital life-connection, and the brute facticity of the definitiveness of death for which there is no adequate preparation. There's nothing warm, initially, in any loss, death, or painful goodbye.

Time, of course, is a great healer, but there's more to this than simply the fact that we become anaesthetized by the passage of time. After a while, and for me this took several years, I didn't feel cold anymore. My parents' deaths were no longer a painful thing. Instead their absence turned into a warm presence, the heaviness gave way to a certain lightness of soul, their seeming incapacity to speak to me now turned into a surprising new way of having their steady, constant presence in my life, and the blessing that they were never able to fully give me while they were alive began to seep ever more deeply and irrevocably into the very core of my person. The same was true for my siblings. Our sadness turned to joy and we began to find our parents again, in a deeper way, at a deeper place of soul, namely, in those places where their spirits had flourished while they were alive. They had ascended, and we were better for it.

We have this kind of experience frequently, just in less dramatic ways. Parents, for instance, experience this, often excruciatingly, when a child grows up and eventually goes away to start life on his or her own. A real death takes place and an ascension must happen. An old way of relating must die, painful as that death is. Yet, as we know, it's better that our children go away.

The same is true everywhere in life. When we visit someone, it's important that we come; it's also important that we leave. Our leaving, painful though it is, is part of the gift of our visit. Our presence depends partly on our absence.

And this must be carefully distinguished from what we mean by the axiom: Absence makes the heart grow fonder. For the most part, that's not true. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but only for a while and mostly for the wrong reasons. Physical absence, simple distance from each other, without a deeper dynamic of spirit entering beneath, ends more relationships than it deepens. In the end, most of the time, we simply grow apart. That's not how the ascension deepens intimacy, presence, and blessing.

The ascension deepens intimacy by giving us a new presence, a deeper, richer one, but one which can only come about if our former way of being present is taken away. Perhaps we understand this best in the experience we have when our children grow up and leave home. It's painful to see them grow away from us. It's painful to have to say goodbye. It's painful to let someone ascend.

But, if their words could in fact say what their hearts intuit, they would say what Jesus said before his ascension: "It's better for you that I go away. There will be sadness now, but that sadness will turn to joy when, one day soon, I will be standing before you as an adult son or daughter who is now able to give you the much deeper gift of my adulthood."