Thursday, May 21
Growing up in the United Church of Canada, I don’t remember Ascension Day being a significant moment in the liturgical schedule. Perhaps that was just United Church thing; since the early twentieth century, increasingly fewer Protestant congregations have observed such feast days in the Christian calendar. Or it could have just been that such commemorations did not capture the attention of a small-town teenager who by definition was programmed to reject anything with a whiff of establishment or ancient tradition. I think if Ascension Day had been on my radar in my youth, it would have seemed a little fantastical, or dare I say, even somewhat comical. Growing up in an age of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, I had enhanced radar for anything that was open to parody and skepticism. (Blessings upon my sainted father and grandfather, both UC ministers, for their patience with my theological queries.) Even now, the iconography and stained-glass imagery representing Ascension Day still sometimes challenges my threshold for the implausible. Yet, having been fully embedded in the Anglican Church, both by faith and by actual profession for many years, I have come to recognize how significant Ascension Day is. Many churches, particularly our more Anglo-Catholic sisters and brothers, are eager to have the Bishop present for confirmation on Ascension Day or to have special liturgical customs to celebrate the day.
On the other hand, for many adults (especially those in the secular world), Ascension Day does not register. Easter is the end and beginning, the omega and alpha of the gospel story. Good Friday to Easter. Crucified, died, buried, risen. Put a bow on it. End scene. All’s well that ends well. For some, Ascension Day, which comes 40 days after Easter, might be relegated as an obscure coda to the main event. A quirky, underrecognized epilogue on an already satisfactory and fruitful conclusion.
Not so. After his post-Resurrection appearances to Mary and the beloved disciple, and to Thomas, and to Cleophas and the unnamed disciple on the road to Emmaus and to the rest, would it have been sufficient if Jesus had just faded away and returned to the Father? I think not.
For one thing, in those forty days, we see the seeding of the early church. Christ didn’t just do what needed to be done and quit the scene on Easter Monday. He met with his disciples, the rocks of the Church, and ensured that each of them, according to their needs, was equipped to carry out his ministry on earth. This is a commission and equipping that has, through the generations of saints, come to us today.
Additionally, at the Ascension, the disciples (and we as the inheritors of their truths) are witness to the fact that Christ does indeed have access to heaven, and that we, because he was like us, are partakers in that same access. Jesus told his followers right before his Ascension, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:46-48). They were witnesses. We are witnesses.
He also said: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), and indeed ten days later they did receive the Spirit at Pentecost. They were empowered. We are empowered.
Through his earthly ministry and the Easter experience, we have experienced a Christ who is extremely personal, engaged in one-on-one exchanges with sinners and seekers and believers and betrayers and persecutors alike. The Jesus Christ Superstar Jesus is extremely relatable. In the gospel telling, we further encounter a resurrected Christ who has very intimate exchanges with his faithful apostles. But with the Ascension, we see an ascended Christ who is supremely powerful and sovereign. If it seems fantastical and if it staggers the imagination, it’s because it is and it does. And that is entirely the point. Christ, who was humbled to be so human, is in fact transcendent of the known world. He exists outside of and has supremacy over earthly created order. Never mind what a friend we have in Jesus. What an advocate we have in Jesus! What a saviour and redeemer! The scale suddenly shifts to the cosmic, but by virtue of our closeness with Christ, we are not really left behind. As Tim Keller, renowned pastor and theological author, says: The ascended Christ “controls all things for the church, and therefore you can face the world with peace in your heart . . . he’s at the right hand of God as the executive director of history, directing everything for the benefit of the church. If you belong to him, then everything that happens ultimately happens for you.”
Finally, the Ascension reminds us to literally keep our eyes on the prize: heaven, the life everlasting, the mansion with many rooms and no more goodbyes. The fact of the Ascension is an incredible resource and comfort for living in this world and feeling assured of a life after this world. The reality that Jesus spoke of when he met with his disciples is the same reality promised to us, and it is realized by his very visible ascension this day: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14: 3-4). As the movie trailers would say, “Watch this space! Coming soon!”
In the readings of the past weeks, we have encountered a few of Christ’s significant “I am” statements. Today is Christ’s great “I go” statement. And in life and in death, this assurance – “I go before you, so you may go, too” – is remarkable and powerful, even if the day itself may be lesser known.
Dear God, before your beloved Son’s Ascension into heaven, he told his friends and followers to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth and that they would receive the Holy Spirit to guide them. We are those friends and followers today. May we be similarly inspired to spread the Gospel message in word and deed, with your guidance and your grace. Remembering this day, we keep our eyes fixed on building your kingdom on earth and uniting someday with you in Heaven above. Amen.