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Ascension Sunday 2020

I chanced to read recently that there is nothing more intimate nor more remote as the face of a lover.  It brought to mind the observation of the French writer, Jean Mambrino in which he prays, “You wanted me to tell you once more about the interval that brings us together. I need that interval to be, to become. It is the interval which frees you. It arouses your desire, opens your countenance.”[1]  Mambrino was speaking of a core tension in our life, the tension between absence and presence.  We need both in order to understand ourselves and one another.  Yes, in the bonds that join us to each other absence can become a way of presence.  I’m not sure that it is simply a case that ‘distance makes the heart grow fonder,’ as the idiom expresses it – because, as we know, this is not always the case. However, the space that exists between us, the space that can never be overcome,  that absence that opens up between us – even as we are in each other’s company – fills with a desire for the other. And it is this desire that makes the other present – even in their absence. 

This is something true in all our relationships, including that of the most intimate, perhaps especially in the most intimate. And yet this juxtaposition of absence and presence is also the key to the understanding of the Ascension of Jesus. 

In reflecting on the moment we call the Ascension, we must avoid infantile images.  The risen Christ doesn’t take off from earth as if with some rocket-fuelled energy.  Rather, what we are considering is that in his resurrection, Christ becomes, in a certain way, absent to us. His life is no longer confined by time or space.  We cannot see or hear him as do one another. However, this absence is not a void.  He is taken from our sight, yet he remains present.  And paradoxically his absence is the way by which he can be present, present to us in a new way – and yet, a presence that truly continues to act on us, to inform us and to shape us.  The Ascension celebrates an absence become a presence.

In the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, and through the Descent of the Spirit at Pentecost – three moments integrally linked as part of the one Mystery – absence and presence intersect. 

We live out this intersection in our life of faith and discipleship.  It means that even in our timidity we can become bold, even in our doubt we can have faith, even in our sadness we can be joyful.  Two things that appear to be opposite don’t necessarily have to cancel one another out or negate each other.  I can be quite unsure and still act with courage, I can be full of questions and still have faith, I can be quite sad but still exercise joy.  Often enough we find in one experience another.  Henri Nouwen, the popular spiritual writer late last century, expressed it his way:

“[There is] a time for mourning, a time for dancing (Ecclesiastes 3:4). But mourning and dancing are never fully separated.  Their times do not necessarily follow each other.  In fact, their times may become one time. Mourning may turn into dancing and dancing into mourning without showing a clear point where one ends and the other starts.

Often our grief allows us to choreograph our dance while our dance creates the space for our grief. We lose a beloved friend, and in the midst of our tears we discover an unknown joy. We celebrate a success, and in the midst of the party we feel deep sadness.  Mourning and dancing, grief and laughter, sadness and gladness – they belong to each other as the sad-faced clown and the happy-faced clown, who make us both cry and laugh. Let’s trust that the beauty of our lives becomes visible where mourning and dancing touch each other.”[2]

For the past 8 weeks we have lived with such paradox. Our churches have been empty, we have been disconnected with one another. And yet we have discovered a new connection to our spiritual lives. The absence we have experienced has become the space in which we have acknowledged in a deeper way than previously our need to belong, to affiliate, to gather together. Our time has been more vacant and yet the vacancy has become inhabited by new ways of being present to those closest to us. 

Recently, in our parish mailout we shared this reflection of the Franciscan Fr Richard Hendrick OFM.[3] It expresses well the intersection of presence and absence of these last months:

Yes there is panic buying.
Yes there is sickness.
Yes there is even death.


They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise
       You can hear the birds again.

They say that after just a few weeks of quiet
       The sky is no longer thick with fumes
       But blue and grey and clear.
They say that in the streets of Assisi
       People are singing to each other
       across the empty squares,
       keeping their windows open
       so that those who are alone
       may hear the sounds of family around them.

They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland
      is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.

 Today a young woman I know
      is busy spreading fliers with her number
      through the neighbourhood
      so that the elders may have someone to call on. . . 

All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting.

All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a new way.

All over the world people are waking up to a new reality
      To how big we really are.
      To how little control we really have.  
      To what really matters.
      To Love.

So we pray and we remember that

Yes there is fear.
     But there does not have to be hate.

Yes there is isolation.
   But there does not have to be loneliness.

Yes there is panic buying.
    But there does not have to be meanness.

Yes there is sickness.
    But there does not have to be disease of the soul

Yes there is even death.
     But there can always be a rebirth of love.

Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.

Today, breathe.

Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic-
     The birds are singing again
     The sky is clearing . . .

     And we are always encompassed by Love.

Open the windows of your soul
          And though you may not be able
          to touch across the empty square,


In the transformation of absence into presence which is at the very heart of our faith in the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus we have the courage to sing. To sing a new song. A song of hope and of joy. Let us sing loudly and clearly so the life of Resurrection may be seen and heard.

[1] Jean Mambrino, Le palimpseste ou les dialogues du désir, (José Corti editions, 1991).

[2] Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey a daybook of wisdom and faith, (San Francisco:  Harper SanFrancisco, 1997), 28th March.

[3] Richard Hendrick OFM, 13 March 2020,

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