Only Luke recounts the story of Christ’s ascension, and it often seems a puzzling feast. A number of years ago I attended a children’s liturgy in a vibrant parish. The priest told the children that he had bought a special gift to celebrate Ascension Thursday and asked them to guess what it was. Hands waved eagerly as the first platoon of responders suggested holy cards and pictures of Jesus. After many failed answers, one little tyke with a beaming smile of assurance suggested a jack-in-the-box.
I do not remember the rest of the homily or how the priest brought the little ones to a deeper meaning of the story, which Luke recounts twice, at the conclusion of his Gospel and at the beginning of Acts. It is a transition between the earthly and the enduring presence of Jesus. At a time when Roman emperors were claiming divine power, Luke tells his community that the exalted Jesus is more powerful than any earthly power (see Eph. 1:20-23). The Gospel presents fundamental themes of Luke. As in the other post-resurrection appearances, Jesus calls his disciples to return to the Scriptures (It is written) to grapple with the mystery of his suffering and resurrection, so that repentance and forgiveness of sin would be preached in his name to all nations. These final words provide a link back to the annunciation of the birth of John, who was to preach repentance and forgiveness (Lk. 1:13-17), and to Zachary’s canticle heralding the arrival of the day star (Jesus), who was to announce forgiveness of sin and give light to those who sit in darkness (1:76-79).
The disciples are to be witnesses of Jesus’ life and will be clothed in the Holy Spirit as they spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The Ascension is about the exaltation of Jesus but not about his absence. We are not to stand looking at the sky (Acts 1:11) but at each other, at the church that is his body (Eph. 1:22), as a witness of forgiveness throughout history.