Looking back at the Ascension from Whitsunday, it is hard to remember that in a sense Jesus was actually, physically, going away from his friends. He was leaving them to manage as best they could.
In that sense, we are all experts at being left by our loved ones: they die or go into a far country, or put us on a train to one. Like a swimming coach who pushes you in the deep end, we are supposed to think as the people of Philippi when Paul said to them: ‘Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’. Indeed.
Of course the Holy Spirit was coming by way of rescue, but not like the United States cavalry: his help was fundamentally different from that given by the actual presence of God as a human being in his own material world. Men were commanded to stir their stumps and witness Christ ‘unto the uttermost part of the earth’. When Jesus left them, the Apostles felt as we feel, and asked anxiously about the future; to which Jesus replied that it was not for them to know the times and seasons. I suppose the poor fellows thought vaguely that divine Providence would take charge. They certainly thought the Second Coming was imminent. Nothing of the sort happened, only a cold wind blew about their ears, as it blows about ours. They just had to get on with life, and regard the future with interest rather than anxiety.
Which may seem at first sight not a very cheerful way of expressing our situation; but surely it is true.