I like Ascension Day. It often comes at a strange time for me and has come and gone before I know it, so I don’t always pay attention to it like I could. I imagine that most of us are already thinking about Pentecost which we celebrate next Sunday. Besides, Thursdays are weird days to think about a feast with it being in the middle of the week!
Part of what I like so much is the neglected aspect of ‘absence’ that is in the text. Perhaps looking forward to Pentecost, we want to stress the coming of the Holy Spirit that soon follows (according to Luke), will be our comforter (according to John), and will be the presence of Christ (according to Matthew). But, in the traditional ascension passage (Acts 1.1-11), the angel clearly tells us that Jesus will come back. For this to happen, he has to leave. If I were to tell April that I will be back and then don’t move, she will say, ‘I thought you were leaving.’
I don’t want to belittle or negate the presence of Christ with us in the Holy Spirit, but neither is Pentecost a sort of ‘end game’. There is more to come. There is more to hope for. Absence brings these thoughts to us. In absence, we realise that something isn’t quite right. When we are apart from those we love, we miss them and recognise that there is a situation that we want to stop. We want the presence of the person we long for. Even with the Holy Spirit’s coming, there is still a longing for Jesus to come back. The angels didn’t repeat the promise of Christ – that they would receive the Holy Spirit – but promised that Jesus would return.
This absence gives us an unsettling feeling with the current situation. It causes us to reach out in the Holy Spirit to delve deeper into the mystery of God. We yearn for a deeper communion with him precisely because he is in some way hidden from us. This is much like we do with those we are separated from – our family has to rely on email, phone calls and videophone/skype calls. It isn’t the same as being face-to-face, but then again we would rarely have presence all the time. The absence makes us try to change the current situation of separation by overcoming it in ways we can.
The feelings of absence with Jesus give us an unsettled feeling of how things are. So, in the Holy Spirit we reach out to Jesus through prayer, Holy Communion, and other Means of Grace. We continue the work of the kingdom, empowered by the Holy Spirit, that will overcome the unsettled feelings that the world is not living as the true king would have it.
I have never been a charismatic type that easily feels the presence of God. I sense a feeling of absence more often. I think this is why I connect so well with Ascension and the season of Advent, where the church can take the opportunity to say, ‘Something isn’t right. There’s something missing.’ For me, it isn’t a sober realisation that causes depression (though it could because feelings of absence aren’t always a great feeling, either!), but a cause for hope that can result in a response that moves me to go deeper.