Movie buffs will remember the long-time film critic Roger Ebert. Along with sidekick Gene Siskel, Ebert was made famous for—among other things—his “thumbs-up” and “thumbs-down” movie reviews. Not long ago, Ebert died after an extended battle with cancer. Despite his illness, Ebert never lost his passion for films. For that matter, he never lost his passion for life. After his illness forced him to retire from television, Ebert maintained a blog site from his home. From there, he continued his reviews and critiques, and thus remained connected to his legions of fans. However, as his illness worsened, Ebert was forced to stop his work on the blog site. One day, he announced to his internet audience that he was going to suspend his internet movie reviews. After describing the medical treatments he faced, he told them he was going to take a “leave of presence.” He said, “You might ask, ‘what’s a leave of presence?’ It just means I’m not going away.”
A leave of presence….not going away—Ebert might just have well have been describing the mysteries of the Ascension and Pentecost. These overlapping mysteries announce the God who is absent in one sense and present in another. The God once visible with earthly eyes becomes visible with eyes of faith. Together, these mysteries break open a sacramental world in which ordinary things take on extraordinary identity. It’s a world in which Christ can be present and absent at the same time—all through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Trouble is, we often think of the Ascension and Pentecost mysteries as a departure. It’s as if by ascending, Jesus were crossing the boundary between heaven and earth, and now his followers are left to fend for themselves. But this would be missing the point. Easter has broken that boundary. Heaven and earth are merging. So with his ascension and sending of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is leaving the disciples’ sight without ever leaving their side. And somehow, the disciples know this. They return to Jerusalem filled with joy. They preach, heal, and forgive. They do all the mighty deeds that they had witnessed Jesus do before their eyes. In faith, they know that Jesus is with them, but now in a deeper and more profound way.
The mysteries of Ascension and Pentecost commemorate a new spirit, a new presence of Jesus in the world. God’s spirit is intended for every stage and circumstance of our lives. Sometimes it’s a spirit of consolation. Sometimes of courage. Sometimes of understanding and right judgment—and so on. Compared with a year ago, our lives may have changed a great deal, or they might have changed hardly at all. But no matter what degree of change, God’s spirit will be the right spirit for that change. The question for us: Are we looking for that new spirit? Are we welcoming it into our lives? If we have lost a loved one, for example, how does God find us? Are we alone and unable to turn for help? Are we neglecting God’s Spirit of consolation? Or when it comes to the major decisions we face in life. Again, how does God find us? Are we considering the big picture—the one that includes God’s interests as well as our own? If not, could we be neglecting God’s gifts of wisdom, understanding, and counsel?
Let’s not kid ourselves. These are important questions because they relate to the spirit of God in our lives. They are Ascension and Pentecost moments. Although they might be disconcerting to us, they are moments of opportunity, times in which the presence of God is brought before us in a new way. And let there be no doubt about it: We need to grab hold of it. Otherwise, we find ourselves clinging to yesterday’s spirit in today’s world. And if we follow this dead-end path long enough, we will find ourselves wondering what happened to the God we once knew. And strangely, God will be wondering the same thing about us.
In a recent homily to commemorate the Second Vatican Council, Pope Francis reflects on the mystery of God’s Spirit in our lives. In the Pope’s own words….
We want to tame the Holy Spirit. And that is wrong. Because He is God, and He is the wind that comes and goes and you do not know where. He is the power of God, what gives us consolation and strength to move forward. But move forward! And this bothers you. Comfort is more beautiful…
We are well advised. It is easier to put our faith life in “maintenance mode” than to open ourselves to new possibilities. No doubt, a sense of comfort and continuity has its place in the life of faith, but never to the detriment of challenge. God’s spirit continually challenges us to move beyond our weaknesses. We are challenged to live more fully as the hands and feet of Christ. Any attempts to domesticate the Spirit will eventually prove futile. However, if we are growing in holiness, we will be living our faith not on our own terms but on the terms of the One who sends us.
The Sacrament of the Eucharist manifests the God who has taken a leave of presence. Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father, and yet appears to us as bread and wine. Christ lives in heavenly glory, and yet abides in scriptures and assembly. Christ offers himself amid saints and heavenly hosts, and yet offers himself through the priest. The God who is revealed in some ways remains hidden in others—a leave of presence.
Ascension and Pentecost brought joy to the disciples. Even as they preached the coming of God’s Kingdom, they knew their Savior was not going away. God would be faithful in every generation and in every circumstance.
©Rev. Tom Mannebach