The Mystery of the Ascension

Ron Rolheiser OMI
May 27, 2001

When I was in my early twenties, both my parents died; dad first, of cancer, mum three months later, of pancreatitis and a broken heart. Like the rest of my brothers and sisters, I felt a great loss. Nothing had prepared us for this. Moreover, mixed with the pain, the sorrow, was also the sense that this was somehow unfair: They died too young. This isn't fair.

For awhile, I felt their death as a coldness, an absence, an unfairness. Slowly, imperceptibly, those feelings changed until, after about two years, their absence began to feel like its opposite, a different kind of presence. The pain of separation disappeared and I, as did the rest of my brothers and sisters, began to feel their warm presence again, in a new, more–enduring way. Moreover, whatever faults and deficiencies they might have had in life now seemed purified, washed clean by their deaths.

In that experience, I got a taste of the great mystery of the ascension, the mystery of how in having to let go of one kind of presence, however painful that may be, we receive a new, more–enduring presence, that of spirit.

The ascension is perhaps the least understood of all the major mysteries within Christianity — perhaps more “under–understood” than misunderstood. We tend to picture the ascension more than theologize about it. Mention of the ascension tends to set loose a picture (given us by St. Luke) of the resurrected body of Jesus ascending like a slow–motion satellite at Cape Canaveral, with Jesus waving goodbye and blessing us as he drifts slowly upwards through the clouds. A beautiful icon. But what is this mystery really?

The ascension, in essence, is the mystery that explains the transition between the earthly and the enduring presence of Jesus. What does this mean? Perhaps John's gospel is easiest to understand here. John expresses the idea of the ascension in the concept of “not clinging”, of letting go of Jesus as we once had him in order to be able to receive his new, resurrected presence, now given in his spirit, the Holy Spirit. The other gospels employ a different image, but with the same idea: The Jesus who walked this earth with us, whom we touched physically, who ate fish in front of us even after the resurrection — but who was then circumscribed and limited in his presence by that physical tangibility — must be let go of so that he can now be with us in a richer, fuller way.

Moreover, this concept does not just describe an event in Jesus' life, it throws light on the entire mystery of human love and intimacy, revealing there a great paradox, a puzzling interplay between presence and absence, between physical touch and enduring spirit, between having to let go of one kind of presence in order to receive another. And always it involves a pain that stretches us.

In John's gospel, when Jesus is preparing his followers for the ascension, he keeps saying these words over and over again: “It is better for you that I go away because only if I go, can I send you the spirit. You will be sad now, but your sadness will turn to joy.” John adds the cryptic phrase, “For, as yet, there was no Holy Spirit since Jesus had not yet been glorified.” How is this possible? Doesn't the Spirit pre–exist inside God from all eternity?

John is not commenting here on the Holy Spirit's pre–existence. What he is saying is intended to help us understand a certain something within the mystery of Jesus' death and within the mystery of life in general. What? Among other things, this:

Every time a child grows up and leaves home, he or she could say the same words Jesus did: “It is better that I go. Only then can you receive my new spirit — right now that spirit doesn't exist because I haven't yet gone away.” This is even more true when a mother or father is dying. Had a dying parent full faith, full courage, and full words, he or she could say to the family: “It is better for you that I go away. Only then can you receive my spirit. You will be sad now, my death will feel like a coldness, an absence, but one day that will turn to warmth, to a new enduring presence, my spirit.” Indeed, this is even true, in a miniature way, whenever we visit a friend. It is good that we come for a visit, it is also good that we leave. Our absence helps purify our presence, not just in the sense of “how can you miss me if I don't go away”, but in that much deeper sense, where only our leaving can release a fuller, more–enduring presence, our spirit.

Such is the dynamic of the ascension: Spirit follows touch, healthy absence can help purify presence, and only a certain kind of going away can keep us together forever.