Parting Gifts

“He ascended on high and took prisoners captive; he gave gifts to men.”

Today we accompany our Lord to the mountain for His Ascension. We may be at a loss as to what to say. Our Lord has tried to prepare us for this moment. He told us that we should be happy for Him, because He goes to the Father. (cf. Jn 14:28) And indeed, this feast does have the character of that simple joy in the Son’s return to the Father. Again our Lord instructed us to rejoice because, by His going to the Father, He will bestow upon us the Holy Spirit. If He does not go, the Spirit will not come. For this reason it is better for us that He goes. (cf. Jn 16:7)

Nevertheless, like the disciples ahead of us, we fail to grasp everything He has said. Matthew tells us that as the disciples went with Him to the mount of His Ascension, “they worshipped, but they doubted.” (Mt 28:17) We hear from Luke that their minds were still centered on earthly things, concerned about the restoration of the kingdom of Israel. (cf. Acts 1:6)

So how do we approach this mystery? What should be our disposition and words? Perhaps two Old Testament stories can serve as figures and instructions for the mystery of the Ascension.

First, we have the episode of Jacob and the angel. (Gen 32:25-32) Genesis says simply of that mysterious event, “a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” Whoever (or Whatever) that figure was, Jacob understood that he was from heaven and could bestow a blessing. So Jacob held him fast and demanded, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” With that, Jacob received a divine blessing and became Israel, the patriarch of a new nation.

The Ascension by James J. Tissot, c.1890 [Brooklyn Museum]
The Ascension by James J. Tissot, c.1890 [Brooklyn Museum]

Like Jacob after that encounter, all analogies limp. We do not hold our Lord as Jacob did the angel. Right after His Resurrection, did not Jesus rebuke Mary Magdalene for precisely that mistake? (cf. Jn 20:17) But if we do not literally grab hold of our Lord and detain Him, we should nevertheless imitate Jacob’s insistence. Jacob possesses a confidence and tenacity well suited to the feast of the Ascension. He displays a confidence that the one going to heaven bestows gifts upon us below: “He ascended on high. . .he gave gifts to men” (Eph 4:8).

By his insistence, Jacob received a new name, a new life, and a new purpose. Just so, our final words to Jesus should not be questions about his bringing about an earthly kingdom or any such worldly concern. We should rather ask Him for a blessing. That, after all, is why He ascends. So, may we be insistent on receiving a blessing – that the ascended One grant us new life and purpose by the gift of the Spirit.

In a second Old Testament story, we have the prophets Elijah and Elisha. (2 Kgs 2:1-14) When his mentor and master is to be taken up to heaven, Elisha follows Elijah from Bethel, to Jericho, to the Jordan. Elijah’s impending departure seems to be known already. The crowds ask Elisha, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master from you?” He gives the terse reply, “Yes, I know that. Be still.” Then, when the time comes for Elijah to be taken up to heaven, Elisha pleads, “May I receive a double portion of your spirit.”

Why a double portion? Wouldn’t the same portion be more than enough? It is a curious request, and much has been written about it. For today’s purposes, however, we need only consider the boldness of the plea. Elisha not only asks. . .not only asks for the same. . .and not only asks for a little! He asks for a double portion of that very spirit that made Elijah so great a witness to the covenant.

This boldness should be ours too as we accompany our Lord to His Ascension: Give me a double portion of your spirit. Why be shy in asking for what He already desires to give – and give in abundance – and indeed ascends in order to give? This boldness should characterize the next nine days, as we pray for the gift of the promised Spirit. That boldness widens our hearts to receive what He already desires to give.

He has now ascended to bestow gifts on us. He has commanded us to wait for power from on high. Now, as we prepare for Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit, may we pray with the insistence of Jacob and the boldness of Elisha. Come, Holy Spirit.

Fr. Paul Scalia is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, VA, where he serves as Episcopal Vicar for Clergy and Pastor of Saint James in Falls Church. He is the author of That Nothing May Be Lost: Reflections on Catholic Doctrine and Devotion and the editor of Sermons in Times of Crisis: Twelve Homilies to Stir Your Soul.