The liturgy of Ascension Thursday puts a tremendous emphasis on joy: ‘Gladden us with holy joys, almighty God, and make us rejoice with devout thanksgiving,’ as a collect puts it. The first reason for joy is the triumph of Our Lord: Ascendit Deus in jubilatione, et Dominus in voce tubae. ‘God has gone up with shouts of joy, the Lord with a trumpet-blast.’ As the members of His body and the subjects of Kingdom we rejoice that the Lord has gone into His glory. The Exodus of Christ from death to life is not complete until He has left this world of corruption, and returned in triumph to the glory that He had before the beginning. The second reason for joy is that exaltation of our Head gives hope to us the members that we will attain to glory: Christi … ascénsio est nostra provéctio, et quo procéssit glória cápitis, eo spes vocátur et córporis. ‘the ascension of Christ … is our exaltation, and, where the head has gone before in glory, the Body is called to follow in hope.’
But in all this emphasis on one gets the sense that we have to be taught to rejoice in the Ascension. As though are immediate reaction would be not joy, but sorrow: Fac nos … sanctis exsultáre gáudiis. ‘Make us glad with holy joys.’ Would it not after all have been better if the Lord had remained with us? If we could see Him with our eyes, and touch Him with our hands, and speak to Him face to face as the Apostles did? Would that not be unspeakably sweet? Sed super mel et omnia / ejus dulcis praesentia.
Moreover, if Jesus had remained on earth it would seem to solve a number of practical problems, as Fr Joseph Bolin once put it:
Then we wouldn’t have the problems in the Church that arise from human weaknesses and failings. The Church wouldn’t have to be led by bishops and popes who also make mistakes. There wouldn’t be as many people who follow erroneous paths. If Christ had remained, had continued to work wonders, thus clearly demonstrating his divinity, there wouldn’t be problems with disbelief and lack of orientation. Christ could have accomplished everything so much better, if he had only remained with us… so we could think to ourselves. So did Christ’s disciples perhaps think. “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)
And so in the days leading up to the Ascension the Church gives us passages from the farewell speeches at the Last Supper to comfort us:
But now I am going to him who sent me, and not one of you asks me: Where are you going? But because I have told you these things grief has filled your hearts. But I am telling you the truth; it is to your advantage for me to go away. If I do not go, the comforter cannot come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:5-7)
By leaving us in the darkness of faith the Lord makes it possible for us to mortify all that is superficial in us. And He sends the Holy Spirit to renew us within, so that we are prepared to see His uncreated Glory when He returns:
If, then, with Christ you were wakened from the dead, look for what is above, where the Christ is, seated by the right hand of God. Think upon the things above, not the things on earth, for you died, and your life has been hidden away in God, with the Christ; when the Christ appears; then so will our life, and you too will appear in glory along with him. (Colossians 3:1-4)