Why Celebrate the Ascension?
One early summer evening, shortly after the end of the school term, my Dad rather solemnly — so it seemed to me — took the training wheels off my bike. Then, while he mowed the lawn, my Mom and I slowly walked my two-wheeled test to the school playground at the end of our block. I was going to ride a bike without training wheels!
Of course it was harder to peddle on a field than on asphalt, but Kansas grass isn’t high. And it did make for a softer landing. This was the procedure. Mom would hold the bike upright while I mounted it. Standing alongside me, with a hand on each of the handle bars, she would run alongside the bike as I peddled. “That’s it. Now peddle faster. Okay, I’m going to let go of the handle bars. Keep peddling! Hold the handle bars steady! Keep peddling!”
I would peddle a few feet, sometimes a few more, and then skid to ground. We would begin all over again, and then again. Mom lost five pounds that summer.
If the Ascension means the departure of the Lord Jesus, why celebrate it? Who rejoices over the loss of a loved one? Clearly this is not a day to remember what was lost. We celebrate what was gained.
For the first time, our humanity, the nature assumed by Christ, has been taken into the Godhead. This is a coming of age for the human race, something akin to the removal of training wheels.
Here, the sainted scholars of the Church diverge a bit. It’s not clear whether we were created to enjoy the very life of God, or if this is the gladsome result of the Incarnation. Put another way, we don’t know whether the Incarnation, and the resultant glorification of our humanity, happened because of sin, or despite it. Either way, as it did happen, Christ took on our humanity so that we might share his divinity. Today, in him, our humanity is first raised to that height.
There’s another aspect to the Ascension. Our companionship with Christ passes from the self-evident to the mystical. Apparitions give way to the Church and her sacraments. Christ’s presence among us doesn’t decline; it matures. Think of it this way: this is the day Christ let go of the handle bars. God retreats enough so that the Church might become her own self. God lets go — just as my Mom did those handle bars — so that human faith and courage might have a go. “So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God. But they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs” (Mk 16: 19-20).
This is a day worth celebrating, because, in heaven, in the person of Christ, our humanity was raised into the Godhead, and because, on earth, that same humanity was set free to grab the handle bars and ride the winds, commissioned to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Rev. Terrance W. Klein