A Meditation on the Ascension of the Lord

By Father Tom Shufflebotham S.J.

In my last year of Jesuit training, I was sent – whether as a reward or a punishment – to give a retreat in a girls' boarding-school.  As I arrived, I noticed groups of girls in twos and threes taking flowers to the cemetery. It turned out that there had been a young woman teacher called Jan McGregor who was very popular with the girls and much admired by them. She was aged 24.  Just a few days before I arrived, she had died suddenly. The girls were heartbroken. Of their own accord they had got down on their hands and knees and scrubbed every inch of the long aisle and corridor along which the coffin would be carried.

In the following days they told me more about Jan. I began to feel as if I knew her. It was late Springtime and it suddenly dawned on me that here was an insight into the meaning of the Ascension.

While Jan was alive in this visible world, she might be in a classroom... or the library... or the dining room, but she couldn't be in all of them. But now that she had died it was as if her presence pervaded the whole place. You may get the same feeling in Avila and half-expect St Teresa to come round any corner at any moment.

Luke speaks of Jesus withdrawing from the disciples and yet he adds that they went back to the City “full of joy”. I used to think that this was perverse of Luke, but their joy means surely that this was not a departure bit a disappearance, the beginning not of an absence but of a hidden presence.

He must vanish from their eyes to fill their hearts. The disciples are joyful because they have begun to realise that he must vanish from sight so that they will no longer associate his presence with just one place.

Otherwise, they would be asking themselves, will they next find him at Emmaus... or Jerusalem... or Lake Tiberias? Would we next find him in London... or Manchester or Melbourne... or Lagos... or Los Angeles? But no!... Now they can believe that he is filling the whole world with his presence.

They can now find Jesus in the Eucharist... in the scriptures... in their prayer … in their social gatherings … in the marketplace... in the poor and the sick … in each other... in every present moment and in every place. They can find God in all things. And so can we: a message that's always timely, not least when Covid has dispirited the world... and Prince Philip has focussed our minds on symbols of eternal life just when we needed such a reminder.

In this year's Ascension Mass, the extract from Mark's Gospel was written long after the main body of the work, as a continuation of the narrative that ended so abruptly with the women stunned by their encounter at the tomb. Like Luke's ending it reflects the radiant faith of a Church which no longer had the visible presence of the apostles nor of Christ himself but which joyfully lived Christ, knowing that Christ lived in them – and through them was reaching out to the whole world.

That would mean living in the spirit of the day's Second Reading, from Ephesians - “fully mature with the fullness of Christ”. That is a mission, and a challenge for us and for the whole Church: a mission so to live, and so to love, that the wider world will have no option but to conclude, “The message of these Christians must be true – Christ must indeed be risen”. No wonder Prince Philip had his buglers end with the proclamation Action Stations!          

                                   (acknowledgements to Louis Evely)

Image credit: 'Jesus Ascending to Heaven' (1775), by John Singleton Copley

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