We know from the gospels that the disciples had come with Jesus from Galilee. We know that he and they were sometimes identified as ‘Galileans’ as if that was the name of their movement. We know also that the gospels of Matthew and Mark conclude with Jesus taking leave of his disciples in Galilee or telling them to go and to meet him in Galilee. Perhaps the reference to Galilee has somehow insinuated itself into the account in the Acts of the Apostles because this tradition was so strong, that Galilee was the place where they were to meet after the resurrection and that he took leave of them there. The story ended where it had begun.
Luke, of course, has the leave-taking in Jerusalem or just outside the city. John 20 seems to bring the gospel to an end with Jesus taking leave of his disciples in Jerusalem but then starts up again in chapter 21 to tell us about an encounter they had with him on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
So there are questions about the geography of the Ascension and room for reflection about the reasons why some of the New Testament authors place it in Galilee while others locate it at Jerusalem. And there are cosmological questions also about the Ascension. Whatever about the place from which he departed, where is the place at which he arrived? Where has he gone in this risen and glorified human body of his and where is he now? Well we know that he is at the right hand of the Father.
But he also tells us, in the final words of Matthew’s gospel that he remains with us always, even to the end of time. In other words he has not gone away at all but is continually among us and alongside us and within us. His return to the Father opens the way for the sending of their Spirit into us which makes it possible for Jesus to be present with us always.
On the one hand we will want to dismiss quickly primitive pictures of a three story universe with regions below this earth and regions above it so that if we were to travel far enough into this universe that we could eventually, possibly, stumble into heaven. On the other hand we cannot simply dismiss all this – references to Galilee, to Jerusalem, to the kingdom of heaven – as symbols of purely spiritual realities, things completely immaterial, because we believe that Jesus has risen from the dead in his human body, as the Easter liturgy puts it.
The angels may help us as they help the disciples. According to Jerome Murphy-O’Connor angels, in the New Testament, are well-dressed young men who usually travel around in pairs (a bit like Mormon preachers then). But they appear only at moments of transition or crisis, moments when poor human beings are confronted with the mystery of God at work in Christ, moments beyond our unaided capacity to understand, where interpretation is needed. They re-assure the men from Galilee that Jesus will return in the way they have seen him leave and there is no further point in them standing looking up into the sky.
The High Priest has entered into the true tabernacle carrying not the blood of bulls and goats but his own blood. The King has entered into the Holy of Holies to be seated at the right hand of the Father. This priest and king is Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of the Father but also our brother, the son of Mary, the one who lived and taught and died amongst us.
It is not so much that he has gone to a different corner of the universe as that the universe has begun to be radically transformed, beginning in Him. It is not that there are two neighbouring realms, touching each other, one earthly and one heavenly but rather that this realm in which we live and move and have our being has been completely taken up into another realm. Embraced by the presence of Christ and the presence of the Spirit, the world is being transformed, even in its physical being: think of the blessings we say over the bread and the wine as we prepare them for the Eucharistic liturgy. He has gone up not to be in another place but so that he might fill the entire universe.
Today’s feast is another moment in the one paschal event. It is about power and authority, the readings tell us today, it is about the one who has been appointed king of the universe and judge of all. God’s power not only raised him from the dead, it placed him at God’s right hand in heaven, far above every sovereignty, authority, power or domination. He has been made ruler of everything. The Church is the body of which he is the head and the Church is the fulness of him who fills the whole creation.
He cannot now be at a distance from us although we can be at a distance from him. This is what sin achieves. But grace ensures that those who have been baptised into his life and live by His Spirit are already children of God. They belong to a new creation, these people from here, there and everywhere who do not spend their time looking up into the sky but who spend their time trying to observe all the commands he gave. Because he has returned to the Father He can be with us always, to the end of time, and we can be with Him.