As Walt Whitman looked back on his life, he saw his departure from his hometown as the chance to “strike up for the New World.” Ezra Pound, in his “Cantos,” imagines sailing away from home; “And then went down to the ship,/Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea.”
They’re describing the experience of departure, the way it seems we’re always taking leave of someone or someplace. We move through life like water in a stream. In the Church, we’re no strangers to departure. Priests arrive at parishes, fall in love with the wonderful people there and then must move on to serve other parishes.
Now, instead of a humble priest, imagine yourself among the first followers of Jesus, with Christ Himself as your priest and friend, spending daily time with you until, in the blink of an eye, He’s gone.
The Ascension left the disciples gazing mournfully into the sky, where their Lord no longer inhabited. As I contemplate the impending departure of many priests from their parish families, I think of the changes in my life that deeply affected me. After college, I left New Haven, Connecticut, knowing there was no returning to the place I remembered because each attempted return finds old friends vanished and the old haunts feeling foreign. After becoming Catholic, I quit my position as an Anglican pastor on Cape Cod and said goodbye to parishioners I dearly loved. Driving away in a rented truck full of my earthly possessions was excruciating, like driving away from everything that mattered.
Each departure we make is an exodus. Perhaps this is why St. Matthew says that even as the disciples worshiped, they doubted. Their Lord was gone. Matthew seems traumatized and doesn’t even record the Ascension. He simply conveys the last words of Jesus as if they’re a final testament. To him, the departure stings like death.
We, too, struggle with departures, maybe even feeling that Jesus has abandoned us. Maybe He doesn’t hear our prayers or isn’t as real as He was to those first followers who encountered Him in the flesh. Dread of departure arises from the longing for a permanent home, our desire for a heavenly reality where no one is left behind and God is always present. But there’s no return to paradise. Sin caused Adam and Eve to be exiled. It’s a form of departure from ourselves, alienating us from our souls.
Against this backdrop, we glimpse the logic of the Ascension. We cannot stay here. Jesus cannot stay here. It wouldn’t be good. This life is too marred by sin. The Ascension is necessary to bring us home. It allows Our Lord, from heaven, to be present in the hearts of all, closer than if he’d remained on earth. The Ascension might feel like a departure, but it is actually an arrival.
What new path is God opening up before you? What are you being called to leave behind that’s holding you back? Consider our Lord’s Ascension and take hope that every change, no matter how painful, can be sanctified. Every act of Christian sacrifice, every sinful habit left behind, every halting step you take, is not a step away from but is one step closer to God.
Father Michael Rennier is pastor of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis. A former Anglican priest, he was ordained in 2016 under a pastoral provision. He and his wife, Amber, have six children.