“The one who descended is also the one who ascended
far above all the heavens,
that he might fill all things.
And he gave some as apostles, others as prophets,
others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers,
to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry,
for building up the body of Christ,
until we all attain to the unity of faith
and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature to manhood,
to the extent of the full stature of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:9-13)
The Solemnity of the Ascension features a paradoxical event, in the original sense of “paradox” as that which goes against prevailing opinion: Jesus leaves so that the disciples can have him—and be like him— more fully. St Paul in his letter to the Ephesians connects the ascending of Jesus into heaven to the descent of the Holy Spirit and to the maturity of “manhood” in Christ.
However, this is not how the disciples originally see it when Jesus departs. Jesus has only recently been resurrected, and the disciples are eager to see what Jesus will do next for the world. They hope that Jesus will restore the kingdom of Israel, as the first reading makes clear (Acts 1-11). But Jesus says that even he does not know when that will happen, only the Father, but that something else more important will take place: they will receive the Holy Spirit and be his witnesses throughout the world. The disciples want Jesus to fix the world’s problems, but Jesus instead offers them the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of being able to participate in the redemption of the world as partners with Jesus, as his friends. St Paul says that this is the maturity into manhood (and, we hope, womanhood) in the faith: not only to rely on God to do the work of the world for us but to be friends with Christ in mission.
The Ascension is the occasion on which Jesus has to depart from the disciples so that they can “grow up,” just as we all have to depart from home when we are young adults so that we can stake out our own lives and identities. That process of differentiation does not take place only with adolescents, however—here Jesus is speaking mostly to grown men and women. (Since Mary is present at Pentecost, I like to think that he also spoke to his mother about how his departure would be an opportunity for her own changing role as a disciple, mother, and leader in the early church. Surely he doesn’t take off without speaking to her, after all that she has been through!)
Unless we really consider ourselves participants in the redemption of the world, then actions like petitionary prayer or working for social change in the face of injustice make no sense— we could just let God take care of it all. At the same time, we are not gods, and even Jesus suffered on a cross unto death and the disciples will also go on to be marytrs and to witness for the faith (the Greek term for martyr is literally witness, martyros). In life and in death, we have to rely on the Lord in all that we do.
We also have to rely on each other. Paul reminds the Ephesians (and also other communities, such as the Cortinthians) that people have different gifts that together work for the good of all. Some are teachers, some are prophets, and we could add to this list many ways in which people’s specific gifts and talents can be put to work for the common good: nurses, economists, journalists, mothers and fathers, landscapers, carpenters, supportive aunts and uncles, volunteers at food pantries, priests, administrators, etc. When we are most fully ourselves, we are also most fully Christ’s and most fully one another’s—and it all begins with the Ascension.