Kenneth Clark, noted art historian, tells the story of the evacuation of the National Gallery of Art in London while the city struggled under heavy bombardment during World War II. To save the museum’s art, the masterpiece collection was moved to a temporary location in Wales.
As then-museum director Clark recounts, it was decided to return one painting each month to public display to help Londoners brave the wartime destruction of life and their city. When surveyed, the people requested their favorite images, including a 16th-century work by the Renaissance master Titian, “Noli Me Tangere,” which became the first painting of the month exhibited during the war.
The masterpiece depicts the dramatic scene when Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Jesus after discovering the empty tomb. Jesus calls her by name, just as he calls each one of us by name to live by faith in the power of his resurrection. Encountering the glorified resurrected body of Jesus, Mary did not understand what Jesus’ resurrection meant.
So Mary reaches out to touch Jesus, who responds with mysterious words predicting the feast the church celebrates this week: “I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (Jn 20:17-18).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that the ascension of Jesus into heaven is the “irreversible entry of his humanity into divine glory, symbolized by the cloud and by heaven, where he is seated from that time forward at God’s right hand” (No. 659).
The earthly journey of Jesus that began at his incarnation, when he descends from his Father, is perfectly complete as Jesus is lifted to heaven. Just as Jesus was lifted up on the cross, he is lifted up now to the glorious company of his heavenly Father for all eternity.
Jesus’ ascension is profoundly relevant for daily faith. Left on our own, we do not have access to God’s life and love, even through the best of human efforts. The headline news is a daily reminder of the deep-seated limitations of the human condition, even as we celebrate human achievements.
Only Jesus opens to each of us access to divine mercy that is sourced in God’s eternal love. Jesus, the divine Son sent by the Father, reconciles the world to God as the way, the truth and the life. In faith, we have confidence that where Jesus goes, we too shall go. As Jesus says, “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself” (Jn 12:32).
The Easter mystery does not end in Jesus’ ascension into heaven. The disciples are promised the gift of Jesus’ abiding presence and a full outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Easter faith strengthens us to always hope in God’s glorious company. In joyful expectation of the gift of the Holy Spirit we pray with confidence, “speak to me, Lord.”