I expect all of us have had things happen to us that we didn’t really understand at the time, but perhaps now make a bit more sense. I remember once when I was on holiday on the Isle of Man many many years ago, and I was beside a clear running stream, and suddenly the beauty became almost too much for me. I somehow saw within what I was seeing to a deeper beauty beyond. There is no way of putting into words what actually happened then, and even what I tell you now is a pale shadow of what I actually experienced.
I guess this is what the disciples felt as they tried to describe the various moments when the risen Jesus came to them. You might have thought that they would have begun to understand these times better as they got more used to them; and yet we see that when they describe the last time that they actually saw Jesus – the moment we now call the Ascension – they were just as muddled about it as they had been before. To start with they cannot remember where it happened. For some of them, as in our 1st Reading (Acts 1:1-11) it happened in Jerusalem, but for others, as in our Gospel (Matthew 28:16-20) it happened up north in Galilee.
Then you can see from our 1st Reading that they still didn’t understand what it was all about. They say to Jesus “Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”, and have to be told firmly that they are being given a different kind of kingdom to proclaim, not just to Israel but “to the ends of the earth”. Look for an Ascension story in St John’s Gospel and you won’t find one, because for him – writing about it all later and from a different perspective – every Resurrection story is an Ascension story.
What do I mean by that? The point is that the Ascension stories are telling us that whenever we feel the presence of Jesus, we are actually feeling the presence of heaven, the presence of God in his fullness. Each of the Resurrection stories was a meeting with the glory of God, but it was only in that final meeting that they glimpsed, at least partially, what that meant. They realized that Jesus was with them even if they could no longer see him, or even feel him. So we hear Jesus saying in the Gospel “I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.” But they also realized that when Jesus was with them then they were being given a glimpse of heaven, and the future glory promised to all who are open to such things.
Now be careful! Remember “heaven” is not a place somewhere else. Heaven is simply the spiritual dimension which underlies the physical. So when I saw a deeper beauty on the Isle of Man, I was not being taken anywhere else (although some people like to describe it like that). I was simply seeing, for a moment, that underlying beauty that is so much deeper than the surface physical beauty that I was seeing with my physical eyes. For us who believe, I had for a brief moment, a vision of God – although I don’t think I realized it at the time.
St Paul prays in our 2nd Reading (Ephesians 1:17-23) that God may enlighten the eyes of our mind so that we can see what rich glories his saints (that’s us) will inherit, and how infinitely great is his power. Now, I can look back and remember many moments when I have seen God. When some physical thing that has happened to me – from seeing a tiny new born baby to watching a glorious sunset – from being moved by a great novel or film, to being happy in the company of good friends – can now be seen as an experience of heaven – of God present with me then, as he is present with us now – whether we realize it or not.
How sad it is that people cannot see this! That they look up in the sky for God, as if he is up there sitting on a cloud or something, rather than recognizing him in the ordinary events of life. Some of the disciples remembered the Ascension like this. The moment when they found themselves “staring into the sky” and had to be told to find the risen Jesus in their midst, as they would most powerfully a few days later at Pentecost. St John however ends his Gospel (John 21:1-25) with a meal and a conversation as with a friend, precisely because he wants to get through to us that this is what the presence of God is like.
This is the Gospel message that we have to share. To persuade people to look more deeply into their life and discover that God is with them. That’s how the great St Augustine found God. He says that he was always searching outside, until one day God showed him what he had never realized, that he had been with him, within him, all the time. “Yes I am with you always (said Jesus) to the end of time.” (Matthew 28:20)