Today is the feast of the Ascension. It marks the beginning of one of the strangest periods in the entire liturgical year in the Church. Jesus leaves us, but the promised helper or Paraclete hasn’t come yet. The Holy Spirit will not come to us until Pentecost. That’s ten days away. We are without two-thirds of the Godhead, liturgically speaking, for the next ten days. Yikes.
But why? What’s the point in depriving us of two of the persons of the Blessed Trinity? I think the basic answer is found throughout Scripture. Whenever Jesus left a place or was on the move what happened? People followed. Even the earliest encounters with the first disciples, which were largely one on one or two on one affairs, they followed. Peter and Andrew were minding their fishing business and up and left their business to follow Jesus. Each of the Gospel accounts of this differ slightly, but the basics of the story are the same: Jesus moved in and he moved out and people followed. We see this also further along in Jesus’ ministry with the feeding of the multitude or the stories of the loaves and fishes. By this point, large numbers of people were “following” the movement of Jesus. Some remained followers; some didn’t. Some were in it for the free food; others wanted “more.” Some just wanted to see the “miracle show,” others knew there was greater depth and healing behind these miraculous happenings.
In any case, when Jesus moved people followed. His movement created an absence in a space where he once was present. But his presence has moved on. He needed people to move on from whatever fixed notion one may have gotten about him and follow him to a greater depth of understanding and experience about God the Father. But dealing with absence is usually a unpleasent experience. Nobody likes it when family or friends have to leave; we love spending time with people we love. We might get sad that the good and times had to end or even anxious about the fact that we might not see them for a while.
We see this paradoxical dynamic of absence and presence illustrated perfectly in the pre-Ascension period when Jesus appears to the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus. The two disciples traveling on the road to Emmaus were confused, disappointed, and disillusioned that the Jesus they had followed and loved so much had left them. They didn’t believe all this talk about empty tombs and resurrection, even though other disciples had witnessed the empty tomb and a resurrected Jesus. They seemed to have been hoping for a political leader who would liberate Israel. A man the two do not recognize as Jesus joins them on their walk to Emmaus and engages them in dialogue about the events of Jesus’ death and discusses the Scriptures that point to the Messiah. The two disciples still don’t recognize him as Jesus and He attempts to move on from the two disciples, but they urge him to stay with them and have a meal. It is at the meal in the breaking of the bread that the two disciples finally recognize Jesus, but as soon as they recognize Him, He vanishes.
One of my favorite theologians, Fr. Louis-Marie Chauvet, puts this very well, in his book The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body:
If it is indeed the foundational discourse of the church (its kerygma) we perceive here behind the discourse of the risen Jesus on the Scriptures [in the Road to Emmaus story], the issue which dominates the whole of our story becomes clear: you cannot arrive at the recognition of the risen Jesus unless you renounce seeing/touching/finding him by undeniable proofs. Faith begins precisely with such a renunciation of the immediacy of the see/know and with the assent to the mediation of the church. For it is he, the Lord, who speaks through the church each time it reads and interprets the Scriptures as referring to him or, conversely, each time it rereads Jesus’ destiny of death and resurrection as “in accordance with the Scriptures.” [bold emphasis added]
It is this “renunciation of immediacy” that the Church asks of us during these ten days of absence when we have no Holy Spirit and no Jesus. We are asked yet again to renounce what we thought we knew about Jesus–we’ve done it twice already with both his death and his resurrection in recent weeks. We are being asked to purge our inadequate or self-serving notions of Jesus so we can again receive the fullness of the fullness of God with the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost.
May we fully engage the asceticism of the Ascencion and embrace the presence of the absence of the Blessed Trinity!