I remember going to Mass on the feast of the Ascension when I was a kid. I remember it being one of my least favorite holy days. I could never understand why Jesus left. I mean, doesn't it seem like it would be better for Jesus to stay here? Doesn't it seem like Jesus could have stayed here. We know that after the resurrection Jesus is not bound by space and time, we also know that Jesus lives forever, couldn't he have just stayed here like the Pope for all time? While part of this was motivated by my great love for superheroes (I imagined Jesus in those days like Superman or some other kind of hero), some of this longing is well-intentioned: don't we all want to see Jesus?
Yet, one thing we notice when we read the scripture is that the ascension is never an isolated event. Today in the gospel Jesus is in the middle of teaching his apostles when he goes up to heaven. We hear from the Acts of the Apostles that this took place 40 days after the resurrection. And, we hear that the disciples were not at all disappointed in Jesus ascension but were, rather, overjoyed. So, while I always saw the ascension as an interruption of the resurrection, it is actually the fulfillment of Jesus life here on earth. Jesus whole life was heading not only to his death and resurrection, but also to his ascension.
The ascension is integral to the gospel, the good news. It completes the resurrection. How so? Think about our condition before the coming of Christ. One of the prayers at Mass always sticks in my mind: When we were lost and could not find the way to you, you loved us more than ever; Jesus, your Son, innocent and without sin, gave himself into our hands and was nailed to a cross. We were lost, we were removed from the presence of God by our sins. Because of the fall of our first parents, the communion that the human family was meant to share with God was ruptured. This communion could not be remade by human power alone, which is why Jesus came to us. Jesus came to rescue the lost: he is the good shepherd who leaves the 99 to seek out the lost sheep: the human race. Jesus does this by becoming human: the Divine Word, the second person of the blessed Trinity becomes human so that all of us who are human might again have communion with God. The love which motivates this act of the Word is shown in its perfection on the Cross, where Jesus loves us to the end. Yet, it is only in the ascension where this new communion is fully restored. Humanity, now in the person of Jesus, is raised to the heights of heaven. No longer is there this hard and fast separation between God and humanity; rather, God is with humanity and humanity is with God: united in the person of Jesus Christ. The ascension brings this to completion.
So Jesus was here for a time in order to take us with him into the embrace of our heavenly Father. What did Jesus take with him to heaven? He took with him humanity itself: Jesus is fully God and fully human. All of us therefore, already have a foot in heaven, as it were, by our common humanity that we share with Christ. He also took with him his experiences: all the ups and downs of human life. We should be quick to turn to him in our own experiences: when we suffer, we turn to Christ, when we rejoice, we turn to Christ: Jesus experienced everything that it means to be human. So he takes not only humanity, but also the experience of being human.
What did he leave behind? He left behind the community of believers, which is drawn together by the Holy Eucharist. He leaves behind is very self: his body blood soul and divinity in this most holy Sacrament. Benedict XVI once wrote: it is not the Church that makes the Eucharist, but the Eucharist the makes the Church. When Jesus ascends into heaven it is not so much that Jesus leaves earth; rather, he joins heaven and earth together. This is seen most clearly in the sacrifice of the Mass. Every time we gather around this altar we are joined to the Risen Christ already reigning in heaven. The ascension brings the resurrection to its completion, but the Mass brings the whole paschal mystery, the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ into our present moment. As a kid I wanted Jesus to stay as a superhero, but in fact, after the ascension Jesus is able to be present with us here all the time in this Holy Eucharist.
I would like to finish with a quote from St. Ephrem who saw this connection between the ascension and Eucharist quite clearly. He sees the Ascension itself as a Eucharistic offering:
On this day has ascended to heaven
The new and spiritual bread,
And all the mysteries have been revealed
In your Body, raised like an offering.
Blest be this bread, O Lord!
As light falling from heaven,
He was born of Mary, like a divine seed,
Fell from the cross like a ripe fruit,
And was raised to heaven as one raises the
Blest be your will!