As the Apostles watched the physical departure of Christ, they must have been pretty well forced into the understanding that Christ, in person at least, had done all that he intended to do.
And that must have been, at first, a fairly disturbing idea: Because to all appearances, very little had been accomplished. Throughout his years with them, Christ had spoken in a promising, compelling way of a new heaven and a new earth, a world refreshed and purified for those who followed Christ faithfully.
Well, Christ was gone, and what was left was certainly nothing like a new paradise. To all appearances, the world was just about exactly as it was before Christ had come. If anything, for those who followed Christ openly, it was a good bit worse, as the first rumblings of long cruel persecutions could already be heard.
So certainly, the Apostles, the early Christians, had some reworking to do in their understanding of Christ and what he had come to bring into the world. The goal was still a new heaven and a new earth. But now they had to make room in their understanding for the fact that it was not going to come in a blaze of glory, or some earth-shaking display of power. Rather, it would come slowly, perhaps very slowly. The power that was to renew heaven and earth was not the dramatic, miraculous power of Christ raising the dead; rather, it would come about through their own patient, prolonged exercise of the very human power of faithfulness, endurance and self-sacrifice. Everything that they had expected Christ to do, He was now sending them to do.
And so, in an odd sort of way, it was not till Christ had seemingly at least left his people that they began to understand the true nature of his presence. Great things were yet to be done. The power of Christ would yet transform not just a handful of individuals but a whole world. They would see that begin to happen, they would begin to see Christ at work, when they could begin to look for Him in a totally new way.
From then on, the presence of Christ would be experienced by those who learned to look for Him, for the effects of His power, within themselves. Christ did not move out of the lives of his people: rather, He began to move literally into those lives as He still does this very day, so that now the skills, the talents, the virtues of ordinary human beings have become truly divine instruments, the means by which God’s work in the world can be done.
And so, we need to take Jesus’ words to heart and ensure that we are focussed on preaching the Gospel, making Christ known, living His truth, and inviting people to experience the life of the Church.
The Ascension was not a departure ceremony but the beginning of a new way for the Apostles and for us to be part of Christ and His work.