As a kid — and probably thanks to reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series — I found myself drawn to Norse mythology, and reveled in folktales from the far north as I evaded homework.
A favorite story was a predictable “boy meets-loses-finds girl” yarn, but one that had an interesting twist. Prior to securing the maiden, and on the damsel’s own orders, the hero had to come up with a hiding place she couldn’t suss out. A wizard advised the lad to magically conceal himself first as a rabbit and then as a bear, with neither disguise convincing the girl and instead provoking her ridicule.
Finally, the wizard suggested the youth try a location where the fair lady would never think to look: her heart. The trick worked, and in the end it served to make the pair even dearer to each other.
In a sense, Christ’s Ascension into heaven, during which “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from (the Apostles’) sight” (Acts 1:9), is a bit like the old folktale. This “historical and transcendent event” marks “the definitive entrance of Jesus’ humanity into God’s heavenly domain” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 660, 665). After the trauma of the crucifixion, the resurrected Lord had spent 40 days feeding, consoling and instructing his disciples — and how blessed that time must have been for them! From a strictly human perspective, then, Jesus’ glorious departure for his seat at the Father’s right hand would understandably have evoked at least a little melancholy among his friends. After all, who among us has not mourned when loved ones have left our company for journeys both on earth and into eternity?
Paradoxically, though, Jesus’ Ascension brought him even closer to his followers, as Christ himself predicted it would: “I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (Jn 16:7).
The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, “will be with (us) always,” said Jesus, although the world “neither sees nor knows it” (Jn 14:17). For that reason, Christ can truly reassure us that though our eyes behold him not in his glorified Body, we have not been abandoned: “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you” (Jn 14:18).
Mary and Joseph had a foretaste of how a divinely appointed separation can actually deepen the love between creature and Creator. Unbeknownst to his parents, a 12-year-old Jesus had remained in Jerusalem after the annual Passover celebration, and only after three frantic days did they finally track him down in the Temple, where he was amid the teachers, “listening to them and asking them questions” (Lk 2:41-52). After that desperate time of searching, which caused Mary and Joseph “great anxiety” (Lk 2:48), finding Jesus must have revealed even more fully how infinitely precious he was to them.
Nowhere does Jesus hide himself more tenderly than in the Eucharist, entering into the depths of our being in his very Body and Blood, manifested through the bread and the wine. That transformation is effected through the workings of the Holy Spirit, who was sent after the Ascension from Christ’s “place with the Father” (Catechism, 690) and who “puts us into communion with Christ” (Catechism, 688).
Unlike the ancient Norse tale, however, there is no wizardry or capricious challenge here, but rather an all-powerful God who, in his unfathomable love, nestles in our hearts to unveil his own.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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