Fr. Denys Gonthier, esteemed professor of French at Assumption for many years, was fond of quoting Gabriel Marcel, twentieth century French existentialist, to the effect that absence is another form of presence. Fr. Denys was a lover of mystery and paradox, so the effect of this statement, upending our customary way of thinking, accorded well with his playful spirit. The force of the seeming paradox may be less evident for us today, for whom computers and smartphones and other modes of instantaneous communication collapse the distance that separates us from one another both in space and time. I betray my age and perhaps my nostalgia in wondering whether something has been lost in no longer waiting for a return letter from a friend or a loved one.
Be that as it may, the feast of the Ascension brings into play the mystery of absence and presence in a striking manner. The first thing to understand is the disciples’ reaction to the event. It is decidedly a departure, a leave-taking, and yet we are told that after the crucified and Risen Lord was “lifted up” from their presence, they returned to Jerusalem “with great joy.” This is not the rueful response of disciples grieving the disappearance of their Master. This is not even a reaction borne of resignation that he is gone from us now and that we must wait in hope for his return. It is rather a joy that finds its source in a kind of intensified presence.
This presence comes to light in a couple of different ways. First of all, the disciples were given to understand that what had happened was not really a separation, certainly not a permanent absence. On the contrary, Christ’s ascending to the Father means that humanity henceforward has a permanent place with God. The Ascension did not imply a temporary absence from the world, but rather brought into being a new and definitive form of presence. From now on, the Risen Lord is the One in whom God and man are inseparably united. The joy of this feast stems from the fact that the gates of eternal life have been opened to all who look for salvation, not only for those who were in proximity to Jesus during his public ministry. “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28:19)
These departing words of the Risen Lord point the way toward an understanding of the identity and mission of the Church. The Church does not exist for the sake of compensating for the absence of her Lord, who has “disappeared.” On the contrary, the Church’s mission arises from the invisible presence of Christ, working through the power of his Spirit. In other words, we Christians do not understand ourselves as preparing for the return of an “absent” Jesus, but as proclaiming through word and action his glorious presence in our earthly pilgrimage. “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” (Act 1:8)
This mystery of absence and presence is not far from us during this time of confinement. An appreciation for any mystery of the faith presupposes a certain freedom from the substitutes and compensations that both occupy and diminish our lives. Pandemics can be liberating in that respect, an invitation to recover the essential conditions of our humanity. That means an intensified presence to one another and to the life-giving power of God’s Spirit animating our lives.