Ascension gets short shrift these days. It is still a day when Catholics are expected to attend Mass but the rest of the Church seems to lose sight of this day yet it is an essential part of the story of Christ and the Church.
Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles sets the scene for the rest of the book, written by the same writer as St Luke’s Gospel it moves us from the works of Jesus to the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church, the transition is marked by Jesus’ ascension at the end of his life on Earth.
Artists struggle to represent the Ascension. My favourite is in the Ascension Chapel at Walsingham which follows an older idea of showing in art Jesus’ feet disappearing into the clouds. Clearly Ascension is harder to portray in art than resurrection or crucifixion.
The text in Acts is about a brief goodbye and then is more about the coming of the Holy Spirit for which the Disciples had to wait; they were between two worlds. They had experienced the joy, amazement and wonder of that first Easter but now they had to wait for Pentecost for the Holy Spirit who would drive them out into mission.
Yet despite the briefness of the text the Ascension made it into the classic Creeds of the Church and is seen as an integral part of the story. I think this is because the feast is an interesting juxtaposition of ideas. On the one hand it’s all about Jesus – his glorification, his return to the Father, the end of his mission on earth. On the other hand it’s all about us – Jesus is no longer here to do His work, we have to.
I am reminded of the joke that as Jesus ascended into the clouds the angels hailed him and said ‘welcome back, your majesty, how will you be continuing your work on Earth now?’ Jesus greeted them and pointed down through the clouds at the little band of followers who were staring up. The angel looked with horror and asked if there was a Plan B. There isn’t. It’s up to us.
The strange, but very Biblical, tale of Jesus’ ascension, seems to be one of going away so that he can be more present, absent so that he can reign, present with God, thus present to many. Jesus, the particular human being has to go so that the Spirit can be given and shared beyond one person, one people, one place, one time or one culture.
Again, we notice that the Spirit, so active and present in and around Jesus’ birth, life, teaching and healing throughout the Gospel of Luke is already being queued up as the main character of this book. No surprises, then, that it has been nicknamed the Gospel or the Acts of the Holy Spirit.
It may be fruitful to investigate what the Spirit does in each of Luke’s works. In the Gospel, the Spirit is active in the births of Jesus and John the Baptiser and in the lives of Anna, Simeon, Zachariah and company. John announces that Jesus will baptise people in the Spirit, who descends dove-like on Jesus, inspiring and empowering his ministry. Jesus’ healings, exorcisms and teaching are all enabled by that source. In Luke 4:18, Jesus quotes Isaiah 61:1:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to
bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the
captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free…”
That same Spirit is given to us, the same Spirit who brings good news to the poor, who proclaims release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, the same Spirit who lets the oppressed run free.
For now, in Acts, a community awaits the gift of that same Spirit, not on or in Jesus individually, but spilling out on the people who bear his name so that they would become a living testimony and witness to the work of the Holy Spirit – God’s loving kindness in the world.
So, this Ascension we have to ask “what now?” There is no Plan B, it’s up to us with all our faults and frailties, depending on God and God’s own sovereignty to be sure, but the work is up to us. Over the next week ask yourself “what now” for you in your Christian life. Ask yourself “what now?” for our Church as we seek to be renewed by God’s Holy Spirit. How does that Spirit of love and liberation make a difference to your life – and how does that difference get proclaimed to others?
For some of us it’s an assurance of forgiveness and resurrection. For others, it’s about being compelled to serve and love as Christ served. For others it’s about finding a spirituality which affirms life and connects us with God. Maybe it’s a bit of this for all of us; if our world is to hear of God’s loving kindness then it’s up to us.
Don’t feel despondent as Ascension has other messages too.
First, we know there is one with God who knows what human life is like. Not just with sympathy but with empathy that comes from deep knowledge. Jesus has first-hand experience of suffering and pain; he knows what it is to be human. Jesus knows us, prays for us and perfects our own prayers. Jesus knows our weakness, our failures and our reluctance to proclaim our faith in our lives.
Second the Ascension is a guarantee and witness of our own bodily resurrection at the end of time. This is another truth that Christians like to forget. We are tempted to think of life after death as a sort of cloudy heaven like that old Philadelphia cheese advert. Yet the Biblical witness is that we live, we die, we sleep and then we are raised. Jesus’ resurrection and ascension is the guarantee and witness of this. As our reading from the letter to the Ephesians reminds us, Jesus rules over all things in the Universe; in him we trust for our future and the future of our church.
Third, Ascension is the prelude to Pentecost where the Church is born from the action of the Holy Spirit. This is the turning point, and it’s over to us.
Will you pray with me?
Christ our Lover,
to whom we try to cling;
as you have reached into our depths
and drawn us to love you,
so make us open, freely to let you go;
that you may return in unexpected power
to change the world through us
in your name. Amen.