What Jesus’ ascension can teach us about coping with grief

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Today we remember Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Forty days after the resurrection, Jesus physically leaves the earth, and his followers witness this departure. Today’s readings give instruction and hope to those who must continue to thrive and build the community of faith without Jesus physically with them. As many people struggle with the loss of loved ones, today is a great reminder of the comfort of the Holy Spirit and the importance of honoring those who have passed away.


I am with you always, until the end of the age. (Mt 28:20)

Liturgical day
The Ascension of the Lord (A), May 21, 2020
Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47:2-9; Eph 1:17-23; Mt 28:16-20

How do you cope with grief?
In what ways can you honor the lives and legacies of deceased loved ones?
How can Scripture inform and inspire your life?


In today’s Gospel, we hear Matthew’s account of Jesus commissioning the disciples, giving them authority to baptize and teach. Matthew adds that while they worshiped the resurrected Christ, they had doubts. This may be a reference to the tradition of Thomas doubting the resurrection which is described in John’s Gospel. Doubting apostles speaks to the uncertainty that these early leaders faced during the post-resurrection period. While Jesus gives the apostles authority, he also comforts them, reminding them that he would be with them throughout their journey.
In the first reading from Acts, Luke connects the ascension with the promise of the Holy Spirit. Luke also adds the element of time, saying that for 40 days the resurrected Christ made appearances and spoke about the kingdom of God. The number 40 has symbolic significance in biblical tradition. Jesus fasted for 40 days while being tempted (Mt 4:2; Mk 1:13; Lk 4:2); Moses spent three 40-day periods on Mt. Horeb, fasting, receiving law and praying (Dt 9:9, 25; 10:10); the Israelites spent 40 years journeying to the promised land (Nu 32:13). Forty often refers to a long but limited time period. Actions that happen within these periods are significant and necessary for the person or community’s development.
Time is clearly of interest to Jesus’ followers. As they encounter him in Acts, they inquire whether it is the right time to restore the kingdom of Israel. Jesus asserts that it is not for them to know what is within God’s control. Instead, he tells them to look forward to the time when they would receive the Holy Spirit as he promised, whose descent is celebrated in 10 days on Pentecost. The presence of the Holy Spirit enables the disciples to be witnesses throughout the world, empowering them in Jesus’ absence.

There are valuable parallels that can be made from these readings, especially for people who are suffering the loss of loved ones. Consider this analogy: Jesus is a person who has passed away in your life, and the disciples are you who remain on earth, filled with grief, anger and doubts. Jesus reminds his followers that he is ever-present, even though he ascends to heaven. Loved ones still remain in your memories, hearts and lives, even though they are no longer physically present. As in the past, the Holy Spirit offers comfort. Moreover, the Spirit inspires the important work that still must be done.
Just before his ascension, Jesus gives a final message: “You will be my witness in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” In his farewell, Jesus proclaims that his legacy will persist through his followers and their ability to share the good news. Those who remain after loved ones are gone can consider what can be done to honor their lives and continue their work in their absence. This might include donating time and resources to causes in their honor, creating memorials or pursuing dreams on their behalf. By honoring loved ones, you remain connected to them and share their lives with the world.

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