Longing for the Lord: The Ascension Proves our Love for Jesus
“It has always seemed logical to me that the most holy humanity of Christ should ascend to the glory of the Father. The ascension has always made me very happy. But I think that the sadness that is particular to the day of the ascension is also a proof of the love that we feel for Jesus Christ, our Lord. He is God made man, perfect man, with flesh like ours, with blood like ours in his veins. Yet he leaves us and goes up to heaven. How can we help but miss his presence?”
St. Josemaria Escriva
Christ is Passing By, no. 117
Our Lord must have surprised the Apostles at the Last Supper when He told them, “I tell you the truth: It is better for you that I go away.” He at least saddened them, as Jesus Himself acknowledges (Jn 16:6-7). Wouldn’t it be better for us all if Christ remained with us in visible, human form? It may seem so, and like the Apostles we might find ourselves initially dismayed–caught between our natural love for Jesus and our supernatural desire that the Father glorify Him at once (see Jn 13:32).
We do miss Jesus and should miss Him. It is not a sign of spiritual progress to be indifferent to the Lord’s humanity. St Josemaria unabashedly lists what any normal, devoted disciple would long for in Jesus’ absence: “…his human speech, his way of acting, of looking, of smiling, of doing good. We would like to go back and regard him closely again, as he sits down at the edge of the well, tired from his journey; as he weeps for Lazarus; as he prays for a long time; as he feels pity for the crowd” (Christ is Passing By, no. 117).
Still, the Lord tells us no. He even tells us that we should rejoice that He returns to the Father (Jn 14:28). To reach that level of joy in His absence, Jesus must want us to reach a level of love that gets beyond the barriers between the visible and invisible, the tangible and intangible. In other words, Jesus wants something to happen within us that His presence in human form might prevent: “For if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you” (16:7). He wants us to reach spiritual maturity, a kind of growth that only His Spirit can bring about in us. The Lord could very well have told the Apostles: Unless I go, you will never grow.
In St Paul’s words, we are “attaining to the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; so that we may no longer be children” (see Eph 4:13-14). Ultimately, “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (4:15).
Even before the ascension, the Lord called for this maturity from His closest followers. On Easter morning, Jesus gently rebuked Mary Magdalene: “Do not cling to me thus, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (Jn 20:17). After His ascension and the sending of the Spirit we learn that our love for Christ will be proved by a more hidden embrace within, where the heart’s treasure shows itself more truly (see Lk 12:34). St Augustine suggests that the risen Lord did not want her to regard Him in the same way she always had, but to “believe after a spiritual manner … with a spiritual faith,” echoing St Paul: “even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer” (2 Cor 5:16).
Blessed John Henry Newman stresses that it is the natural condition of the Christian to be in a state of waiting, looking out and longing for Christ. He even identifies the Apostles gazing up on Mount Olivet as models of this longing for the Lord, as they needed angels to goad them on to begin their ministry! In words mirroring those of St Josemaria, Newman says:
“They, then, watch and wait for their Lord, who are tender and sensitive in their devotion towards Him; who feed on the thought of Him, hang on His words; live in His smile, and thrive and grow under His hand…. They see Him in all things, expect Him in all events and amid all the cares, the interests, and the pursuits of this life…” (Waiting for Christ, no. 35).
We have to be firm believers that this is the only way to our spiritual growth in Christ’s visible absence. Otherwise all of the imagery He uses at the Last Supper about vine, branches, and the purification of the branches remains just poetic imagery. St Josemaria underscores this point, connecting maturity with love with longing: “When the branches are united to the vine they grow to maturity and bear fruit. What then should you and I do? We should get right close to Jesus…. He is our vine. We should speak affectionate words to him throughout the day. That is what people in love do” (The Forge, no. 437).
Most especially when the Lord prunes the branches of His vine do we need to believe that He is actively involved at each step of our lives, sustaining and encouraging us in our Christian struggle by the consolation of His Spirit. The Ascension does not promise the disciple freedom from hardship, but rather the powerful aid of Him who knows our weakness in the face of adversity.
St Josemaria sees our own weaknesses and insecurities mirrored in those of the Apostles: “But perhaps, like the Apostles in those days, we are still weak, and on the day of the ascension we ask Christ: ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom of Israel?’ Is it now that we can expect all our perplexity and all our weakness to vanish forever? Our Lord answers by going up to heaven” (Christ is Passing By, no. 117).
Along with the Apostles, the Lord pushes us back into the world with the simple command “Go” joined to the consoling promise “I will be with you.” Obeying His command while depending on His assurance is the simple formula for attaining the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” because we learn to live on the love of Him who accompanies us from heaven.
The whole program of our earthly lives is the perfection of love—the love that we give and the love that we receive. We must love one another as Christ loves us now from heaven—as He loved us from the cross, as He loved us in Mary’s womb, as He loved us in the tomb, as He loved us the morning of His resurrection. How much we need enlightenment of heart to perceive how dearly we are loved, so that we can love on the strength of that security.
To give love as perfectly as we can, and to receive love as perfectly as we can, we must see the Lord Christ within us, around us, and glorified above us. This means fixing our gaze upon the total Christ: Christ ascended in glory, Christ conceived in humility, Christ wearied by His journeys and preaching, Christ maltreated and crucified, Christ risen from the dead, Christ present to us and within us by His Spirit.
It might seem that in His ascension Jesus went from being very close to us to being far away from us. But He indicates the opposite, especially in His Last Supper discourse: He goes away to be closer to us; He sends His Spirit to dwell within us—as a constant friend and guide. But we must have the enlightenment of faith to perceive that presence and the love to act by that Spirit, to follow the Spirit’s lead. Christ has hidden His life within us, so that we will draw strength from Him in His ascended glory, to love on earth as He loves us from heaven.
Having the eyes of our hearts enlightened (see Eph 1:18), may we know the hope to which Jesus has called us, what are the riches of his glorious presence within His saints, that we may be assured: Christ is with us always and has set us on the path to life: “You show me the path of life; fullness of joy in thy presence, at thy right hand happiness for evermore” (Ps 16:11).