The Bittersweet Experience of Ascension

User’s Guide to Sunday, June 2

Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337), The Ascension
Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337), The Ascension (photo: Public domain)

Sunday, June 2, is Ascension Sunday in the United States (Boston; Hartford, Connecticut; New York; Newark, New Jersey; Philadelphia; and the state of Nebraska’s dioceses celebrate Ascension Thursday three days earlier). Mass Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47:2-3, 6-9; Ephesians 1:17-23 or Hebrews 9:24-28 and 10:19-23; Luke 24:46-53.

This Sunday we celebrate one of the hardest goodbyes in history. Luke records Jesus’ departure with typical understatement, “As he blessed them he parted from them and was taken up to heaven” (Luke 24:52). Immediately he continues, “They did him homage and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God” (verse 53). How could Jesus’ parting from his followers leave them so joyful?

Often the bitterness of parting precedes the sweetness of hope. Less than two months before the day of the Ascension, the disciples of Jesus had endured the heartbreaking events of his passion and death. They had passed through the dark night of Good Friday into the incomprehensibility of Holy Saturday. Some had even wondered if all hope had died with their beloved Teacher (see Luke 4:20-21).

When Mary Magdalene was weeping outside the tomb, she received the grace of encountering the Risen Christ.

As she reached to embrace his feet, she was warned by Jesus, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:17). Some translations say, “Do not cling to me.” This seems strange, but its meaning finds clarity in light of the Ascension.

Partings are always difficult; this is a tribute to the love we share with those who must leave. Mary Magdalene had to cease clinging to the way she had experienced Jesus in the past in order to receive the newness of a relationship that would follow his ascension. Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. … And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be” (John 14:2-3). This assurance helped the apostles to understand that Jesus’ departure was only a temporary separation that would prepare for an eternal reunion.

Even in the time of their seeming separation, Christ was not leaving his friends alone. At the Last Supper he gave the gift of his abiding Real Presence in the Eucharist. He also promised the gift of the indwelling Spirit, saying: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name — he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” (John 14:26). In this promised enduring presence, the Lord explained how what seems sorrowful can be transformed to joy:

“If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father; for the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28). In other words, the Father’s steadfast love (in Hebrew hesed, a term which echoes throughout the Law and the prophets) is the sure pledge that the friends of Christ will never be abandoned.

The Ascension, therefore, is far more sweet than bitter, and it illumines all partings for those who walk in faith. Jesus’ return to the Father reminds us that we are on a pilgrimage to our true and lasting home. His presence and promises assure us that our union with him in grace and with one another in charity is not severed by the partings of this world. We can, even amid this world’s constant changes, look forward to the heavenly Jerusalem with great joy and join the continual praise of God that knows no end.

Dominican Sister Mary Madeline Todd is a member

of the Dominican Sisters

of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville, Tennessee. 

She is assistant professor

of theology at Aquinas College in Nashville and also serves through retreats, public

speaking and writing.