We have all had those sad and painful moments at airports, train stations, or before the car pulls out of the driveway carrying a loved one away from us. Saint Luke doesn’t make clear whether this apparent final parting of the Risen Christ from his gathered disciples was an occasion of sadness, perplexity, or dread. The angels’ gentle reprimand: Why are you standing there looking at the sky seems a little insensitive given their still imperfect faith and understanding of the great mystery of the incarnation, resurrection, and glorification of their divine Master. Matthew, too, doesn’t indicate the mood and mental state of the same disciples who, despite his imminent ascension are assured by Jesus that I am with you always, until the end of the age.
If they were confused and upset, they had some reason to be. The angels speak of Jesus returning in the same way as they saw him depart. Returning suggests coming back after an absence. Yet, Jesus contradicts such an understanding by assuring his apostles that he would always be with them, even until the end of the age. Since the scriptures cannot lie, there has to be a sense in which both of these statements are true. Thus, Christ has departed to his Heavenly Father and is now seated eternally at his right hand in glory; and yet he has not departed but remains with his disciples until the end of the age. Expressed differently, the scriptures can be understood to suggest that Jesus straddles the divide between time and eternity with his glorified humanity taken up into that eternal life that was his before becoming man, and yet still immersed in time and space and present to his disciples.
Perhaps then, this is one of the central teaching purposes of Christ’s ascension—this apparent straddling of time and eternity. As such it has special relevance to our present earthly pilgrimage as we strain towards our heavenly homeland. Just as Christ with his ascension and full entry into eternal life has not separated himself from time and space, so we who are presently bound by time and space are not separated from eternity. Instead, time and eternity are interwoven and all spiritual growth involves allowing eternity to more fully permeate our daily lives. This is, of course, another way of describing a deepening union with God and that state of continuous prayer in which time and eternity are seamlessly woven together in an earthly life that has become heavenly.
The graphic image of the Ascending Christ can thus serve as a reminder that we who are still constrained by the limits of time and space are being slowly drawn up into that eternal life in which our relationship to these two earthly dimensions will be forever changed. We need this reminder in order to counter our entrapment in time and space and their narrowing and lowering of our spiritual horizons that leave us within the often painful and unhappy limitations of earthly existence. So, although the angels reprimanded the disciples from looking upward, this is, symbolically, where we need to keep our eyes fixed. This is not to abandon or reject what is a wonderful and beautiful world and universe in favor of some purely spiritual and heavenly state. However, it is to remember that our entry into God and eternal life equips us with an infinitely enhanced ability to revel and glory in our loving Father and Creator, as well as sharing his glorious perspective—not only on this tiny earth, but on the entire universe—both physical and the spiritual. Surely an unimaginably glorious prospect to fire up our zeal and allow Christ to take us up with him into glory and that Eternal Life for which we were created.