The Ascension baffles us. Jesus loves us, but leaves us. He ascends to the Father and yet, we are told, he is with us always.
If he loves us, why does he go, and if he is now at the Father's side, how can he be here with us? We find it hard to capture the sense of this occasion and its promise.
Perhaps that's why we are intrigued by that symbol of the ascension, those gilded feet sticking through the ceiling in the medieval cathedral bosses, the imprint on the grass. Normally loving and leaving, leaving and being present, are opposites. We don't think of them as two halves of a single coin.
To make sense of why Jesus goes, we have to ask how he goes. I don't mean whether he was whisked away on angels' wings or a cirro-cumulus cloud. I mean that he ascended in his risen and glorious body.
The humanity of Jesus, the humanity we share with him, is not shed or dropped aside. The man, Jesus Christ, reigns forever in heaven. But no man is an island; and we who are his kin, by blood and by baptism, are united with him and are to share that kingdom.
The ascension of Jesus, the head of the body of which we are members, is the beginning of our future bodily life in heaven. The ascension indicates that the life in Christ we begin on earth through the gift of the Spirit has its fulfillment in heaven.
Where Christ has gone, we hope to follow. Our newly found humanity is properly lived in the intimate presence of God. Christ's invisibility to our eyes is a measure of the bliss we cannot comprehend.
Perhaps Jesus had to leave this world if he is to be present with each of us. If you walk this earth, you move from A to B and you cannot be in both places at the same time. If you walk from Blackfriars to Blackwells you cannot be in both places at once.
If Jesus had not left he would have been now with one, now with another of us, his disciples. Some would have sat at his feet and loved him. Some would have grown jealous at his absence. Absence might imply neglect.
The ascension offers us a love of God without jealousy, without all the clamour for attention and competition which so frequently marks our community lives and friendships. We do not have to fight for Christ.
On the contrary, in prayer and sacrament we each come to him in his eternal kingdom. We are brought together as we make that journey by grace into the presence of God. We are united by the Holy Spirit. Ascension and Pentecost interlock. They make sense together.
And that Spirit makes missionaries of us, disciples going out to proclaim and to baptize. Not only does the Spirit unite us with Jesus, the Spirit makes Jesus present, reveals Him, in these new missionary encounters.
If we can love Christ, although and because he is not here, we are free to do more than sit at his feet but to proclaim his Gospel. He has given us authority, a share in his priesthood, reconciling people to the God who made them to delight in his goodness.
As Cardinal Newman in his Lectures on Justification once wrote:
His ascent bodily is his descent spiritually; his taking our nature up to God, is the descent of God into us; he has truly, though in an unknown sense, taken us to God, or brought down God to us, as we view it.