And as he was blessing them, Jesus withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. they worshipped him, and returned with great joy to Jerusalem. They stayed constantly in the temple blessing God.
Luke 24: 51-3
In a homily which he offered on this feast of the Ascension in 2013, Pope Francis pointed out what sounds to us like a contradiction: Jesus withdraws from the disciples, and, yet, they return to Jerusalem with “great joy.” For us, said Pope Francis, the departure from our lives of a loved one is an occasion of grief and sorrow. Yet, here the disciples are filled “with great joy.”
The reason, said Pope Francis, is that the departure of Jesus in the flesh inaugurates his omnipresence as Spirit. There is a joy and even a power which is now given to the disciples. We read in the Acts of the Apostles of those who have now been in-spirited: “. . . you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and then you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judaea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth?” (Acts 1: 8) The disciples return with great joy and constantly bless God because they are now living the life and presence of Jesus at every moment and in every place. They are sent out to the “ends of the earth” because Jesus now lives in the Spirit in every corner of the world, in every moment of life.
On this feast day, we read the conclusion of Luke’s gospel and the beginning of Acts, the second part of Luke’s good news. We are brought from the story of Jesus as he lived, died, and rose among us in the flesh to the eternal life that he has brought into the world and the mission to proclaim that life that he gives to those who have come to realize it. The mission, however, remains Jesus’ mission, for it is his life and his Spirit that continues to do the Father’s work in the world, but now through the instruments of those whom he calls.
The disciples, after Jesus’ ascension, clearly know and experience his continuing presence. This is the source of their prayer, their joy, their wholehearted response to being sent. After all the doubts, struggles, and failings of their formation in discipleship during Jesus’ bodily presence to them, they now seem to know something of what Jesus, in John’s gospel, calls “a joy that no one can take from you” (John 16: 22). The source of this joy is the knowledge and experience of the abiding presence of Jesus.
How do we come to know and to live in that presence? Today’s reading from Ephesians offers us a response to this question: “May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call . . .” (Eph. 1: 18) To know, not just cognitively but with our whole being, the life of God in Jesus that is our true life, we must see with the enlightened eyes of our hearts.
Comprehension, as the word suggests, refers to our ability to grasp together, which requires a shared touching and holding. The eyes in our heads can never fully comprehend because we see from a distance, a distance that gives a certain and limited perspective. Seeing merely visually always involves a judgment of what we see. We can only see from our own perspective, which then leads us to judge from that perspective. We cannot touch the reality of the other that is filled with meanings that we do not know. Yet, we have an ability to touch or hold the whole, including all that we cannot understand or comprehend. With the eyes of our hearts, we can hold and empathize with all of what is other, both what we can “see” and what is beyond our ken.
Perhaps it has always been true, but for us especially who live in the age of unending visual stimulation, it is very difficult to “activate” the eyes of our hearts. We have all known in some way or other the experience of which William Wordsworth writes: “My heart leaps up when I behold/A rainbow in the sky . . . .” At such moments we experience a joy that is far beyond any superficial sense of happiness that we know. This happens when, as Wordsworth, we do not merely see an object but we “behold” its reality, its truth. Wordsworth is no mere observer of the rainbow, but rather he “be-holds” it. He grasps its very being; he stands in awe before it.
The people I live and work with, the natural world that surrounds me, the experience of my own body and my own life, the sufferings and joys of the world I inhabit, all of these things are usually merely observed by me. Daily life contains a significant amount of distancing and even isolating from life and world. At every moment each of us is “going through” more than we could ever begin to appreciate. What we are going through is not merely our own life in isolation, it is also the relationship that each of us is with all that is, with our whole natural and human world. To be “in touch” with what we are going through must bring us in touch with the entire world of which we are a part. As Adrian van Kaam puts it, we are not isolated individuals but rather we are our field of formation.
Jesus sends the Apostles out into the whole world because that is where he now lives, in the whole world. To see with the eyes of our heart is to dare to be close to life in ourselves, in the other, in the world, and thus in God. It is to see, as Meister Eckhart says, “with the eye with which God sees.” The joy of the disciples is a joy that is available to us. We need, however, to stop distancing ourselves from life and rather to come to hold it close, to see with the eyes of our heart.
Congratulations on your safe return! Your own home is paradise after an absence. Everyone feels alike about this. Exactly the same feeling comes to us when, after distraction, we return to attention and to inner life. Wen we are in the heart, we are at home; when we are not in the heart, we are homeless. And it is about this above all that we must take trouble.
Theophan the Recluse, in The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, p. 192