By FR. ROLANDO V. DELA ROSA, O.P.
If we read the Ascension narrative, it seems that Jesus has decided to keep a safe social distance from us by going to a faraway place while we, sinners, are quarantined and locked down in this filthy earth. But if that were so, why would He say: “I will be with you always until the end of this age”? (Matthew 28:20).
In truth, Ascension is not about Jesus going up to outer space as though He would permanently reside there. Heaven is not a place “up there” and God is not “Yung nasa itaas.” By His ascension, Jesus overcame the limitations of His physical existence so He could assume a new kind of presence, a presence that transcends time and space.
The crucial word is PRESENCE, which we often mistake with visibility. The COVID-19 virus is invisible to the naked eye, but it is very much present, that is why we take every precaution to avoid contact with it.Although Jesus is no longer physically visible, He is very much present to us in various ways—the sacraments, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, in our reading of the Bible, in our listening to the proclamation of God’s word, in the daily events of our life, in the world of nature where we see intimations of God’s presence, and in our daily conversations with each other.
The feast of the Ascension is even more relevant now, especially when television and the electronic media have diminished the need for face-to-face conversation. For instance, when the Mass is live streamed to an online audience, the image on the screen becomes a substitute for a physically present person. Even if a virtual encounter between the viewer and the preacher happens, there may not be any real conversation.
I remember the story of an old man who, one day, was casually walking along a country lane with his dog and his horse. Suddenly a speeding pick-up truck rushed towards them and bumped them into a ditch. The man went to court and sued the truck driver for damages.
During the court hearing, the lawyer of the truck driver asked the man: “Did you not tell the truck driver after the accident that you were ‘perfectly fine’? Please answer me, yes or no. Because if your answer is yes, there is no need for this court hearing.”
The man replied, “Well, I and my dog and my horse were walking along the road when the driver’s truck swept the three of us off the road.” The lawyer interrupted: “Just answer my question with a yes or no. Did you not tell the truck driver that you were perfectly fine after the accident?”
The man said, “Well, I and my dog and my horse were walking . . .” The defense attorney turned to the judge and said: “Your honor, this man is not answering my question.” The judge replied, “Well, he obviously wants to tell us something. Let me converse with him.” Then he looked at the man and asked: “What happened?”
The man told the judge: “Well, I and my dog and my horse were walking along the road and this truck came around the corner far too fast, and knocked us into the ditch. The driver stopped, got out of his truck, saw my dog was badly injured, went back to his truck, got his rifle, and he shot it. Then he saw that my horse had a broken leg so he shot it. Then he glared at me, ‘How are you?’ So I said, ‘I’m perfectly fine.’” The story tells us how important real conversation is among people.
By His Ascension, Jesus challenges us to fight against the wholesale “virtualizing” of the Christian message.Yes, we can use the communication technology to spread God’s word. But we might just be bending the message to the technical requirements and the distorting influence of these media platforms. We might be putting the transmission of God’s message of salvation at risk. Without any real conversation, the viewers can easily switch off what they are watching, or switch to another online site or channel.