Ascension Day Talk

Ascension Day Reflection – Colin Hudspith

Whatever happened to Ascension? I pose the question because for centuries until relatively recently, together with Christmas, Easter and Pentecost it was celebrated as one of the four great events of the Christian year. St Augustine called it “the crown of festivals”, acknowledging that God in Christ took human form, was crucified, raised and then, “having been given all authority on earth and in heaven,” (Matthew 28:20) took his place in majesty at the Father’s side, King of kings and Lord of lords.

But these days, in many churches, Ascension seems hardly to warrant much of a mention as we hurry on from Easter to Pentecost.

Is it, I wonder, first, because, in the light of our modern understanding, the biblical account that Luke gives us in Acts appears so implausible as to be rather embarrassing?

We might smile at the design of the chapel at Walsingham in North Norfolk, dedicated to Christ’s ascension, which depicts a pair of feet disappearing through the ceiling. And when the first Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, returned from his epic journey into space in 1961, President Khrushchev, promoting the state’s anti-religion line, triumphantly announced that he (Gagarin) “didn’t see God” up there. (As if that’s what Christians were supposed to believe regarding God’s whereabouts).

Yet with our 21st-century outlook perhaps we each have to decide how we interpret the words of our some of our best-loved Ascension hymns – like this verse from “Hail the day that sees him rise”:

Lord, though parted from our sight,

Far above the starry height,

Grant our hearts may thither rise,

Seeking thee above the skies.

Then, secondly, Ascension requires us to grapple with a difficult issue that goes to the heart of our life experience. One commentator puts it simply and starkly like this: “Ascension is the day the present Lord became absent, and who wants to celebrate being left behind?”

We know from so many aspects of life that there’s an enormous gulf between someone’s absence and their physical presence. In so many of our recent TV news broadcasts we’ve seen someone saying “I really miss being able to hug my grandchild”, or someone else being able to come no closer to an elderly relative in a care home than a detached wave of the hand outside a window. It seems that to be deprived of physical contact with someone we love casts a shadow on an important aspect of what it means to be human. The poet John Donne wrote “no man is an island”. We are, after all, not just persons, but persons-in-relation.

Think of that scene described by John in his gospel, a week after Easter, when Thomas, one of the disciples, who hadn’t yet seen the risen Jesus, protested that he needed to see some physical evidence of Jesus’s resurrection. It was only when Jesus then invited him to “put your finger here…….reach out your hand and put it into my side” that Thomas could confidently acknowledge Jesus: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).

So we can surely appreciate the apprehension of the disciples, as they thought about what Jesus had told them at the Last Supper: “It is better for you that I go away….”(John 16:6); that they’d have to get used to living without Jesus in the way they’d known him for three years. And especially in those exhilarating weeks after his resurrection – the times they’d met him, perhaps unexpectedly, and received his teaching (again) about the kingdom of God. Now, in effect, Jesus was saying “It’s going to be different. Don’t expect to see me around in way you’ve been used to.”

According to Matthew, Jesus’s final words to his disciples were “…surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (28:20). How does that promise fit in with our understanding of the Ascension?

 

If we go to Luke’s description of what happened (Acts 1:1-11), we’re told that while the disciples “were looking on, [Jesus] was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight”. That’s important, because we remember that in so many instances in the Bible the cloud is the sign of God’s close, guiding, and affirming presence. We think of the pillar of cloud in the daytime as the people of Israel journeyed through the desert after the Exodus. We remember the Transfiguration, and the cloud that enveloped Jesus on the mountain as his companions Peter, James and John watched him in conversation with two men they understood to be Moses and Elijah. Then a voice had come from the cloud: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him”.

This suggests to me a picture of Jesus’s ascension not to somewhere “above the starry height” but into heaven – that’s to say the dimension of God’s creation which, though close is separated for the time being from this earthly dimension. One day, as we learn from Revelation chapter 21, heaven and earth will finally be joined together in a new way, open and visible to one another for ever.

We believe that Jesus was divine, but that he was also fully human. That meant that during his earthly life and ministry, he was always somewhere in particular. When he was turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana, he wasn’t preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth. When he was calling the despised tax collector Zacchaeus down from a sycamore tree into a new relationship with him in Jericho, he couldn’t be announcing his identity as Messiah to a socially marginalised woman by a well in Samaria.

Now his ascension meant that Jesus was no longer “somewhere” but “everywhere”, not absent from all things but central to all things. From heaven, God’s space, he could be accessible anywhere on earth at the same time.

That was because of the other part of the promise Jesus made at the Last Supper. As we heard, he’d said to his disciples that “It is better for you that I go away” - but that he would “send the Holy Spirit to you”.

The fulfilment of that promise had a radical effect on those first disciples. Acts is the story of how a group of apprehensive followers of Jesus became the confident leaders, preachers, and missionaries in “all Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Witnesses of the risen and ascended Lord in the power of his Spirit.

That promise has lifechanging implications for us too. It means that we are able to enjoy a relationship with Jesus which doesn’t depend on being able to see him and speak with him in the way his disciples could during his life on earth and in the days that followed the resurrection. He is far more than a visible friend and companion; he’s the very centre of our life, intimately sharing our joy and sorrow. St Augustine, again, wrote that he’s “closer to us than we are to ourselves”. In that relationship we’re called to be signs of God, and of his love and compassion in and to the world.

Writing to the Ephesians (4:8) some years later, Paul said “when [Jesus] ascended…… he gave gifts to his people”. But perhaps that’s a story for next week – Pentecost.

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