The meaning of the feast of the Ascension is found outside human history, but its implications touch the lives of all believers. We might wonder just what really happened on that Ascension Day. Was Jesus actually lifted up? And if so, where did his body go? The space travel that this generation knows so well underscores the ambiguity of such questions. Both the first reading and the Gospel give a few descriptive details of the event, but it is the reading from Ephesians that tells us what Jesus’ ascension signifies.
On the feast of the Ascension we turn our attention away from the early life of Jesus and stand in awe of the exaltation he enjoys at the right hand of God. Both his ascending and his placement at God’s right hand are metaphors that attempt to capture some aspect of the mystery we celebrate today. Jesus, this man who lived among us, who was put to death because of his integrity as the Messiah of God, has been exalted by God. Metaphorical language describes this exaltation in terms of Jesus enjoying the place of honor in God’s presence. His being lifted up is another metaphorical way of speaking. It characterizes his transition from existence on earth (even resurrected existence) to existence with God.
The principalities, authorities, powers and dominions of which Ephesians speaks were probably celestial beings. Though we do not subscribe today to the same understanding of the cosmos, the underlying meaning of the passage remains the same: Jesus has been raised above all other beings, even those that others considered minor heavenly beings. Because he has conquered death, everything else is also under his feet. Since people believed that part of the essence of a person was captured in that person’s name, the very name of Jesus is now above all other names.
As mentioned earlier, while this is a feast celebrating Jesus, the readings indicate that his exaltation carries implications for our lives here on earth. In the first reading, Jesus’ followers are told not to stand looking up to heaven, preoccupied with what was in the past. Their attention is redirected to the future. This new direction is even clearer in the Gospel, where the Eleven are given a commission. With Jesus’ departure, it is their responsibility to continue the work that he began. They, and we, are told to make disciples of all the nations, to baptize and to teach. This is an awesome task. How is it to be accomplished without Jesus? Picking up a theme found in last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus promises to be with them, and us, “always, until the end of the age.”
In the power of his Spirit, we can do it. We are not alone.