Ascension day is one of the great festivals of the Christian year, and yet it is relatively forgotten and neglected. I suspect that this is because the event, as pictured in art, is strange and not very believable. In order to understand Christ’s Ascension into heaven, it’s necessary to lay those images aside – in any case, the accounts of the Ascension may not mean that Jesus floated up into the air. We know he disappeared into the clouds, but the event took place on the top of a hill, so disappearing into the clouds may not be as weird as it sounds. As fell walkers know well, it’s easy to become lost on the tops in the fog.
Spiritually, the Ascension has great riches to offer. The first is that of the universality of Jesus. On earth, he was available to crowds of a few thousand people, but he was geographically and temporally confined – only those in the right place and the right time would meet him. The Ascension changes all this; it marks the beginning of the worldwide church and the accessibility of Christ to all people.
This universality has another axis: on Holy Saturday, the church remembers Jesus’ descent into hell. Today the church celebrates his ascent into heaven. All that is, now falls under the reign of Christ – the reign of love. In one his greatest passages, St Paul asks:
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This is, of course, one of the sentences in the funeral service: a passage of great hope. Through the Ascension, Christ’s followers have confidence that where he has gone, we will be able to follow. The gates are flung wide open! Christ has cleared the path to glory! The land of the dead was considered a grey, cheerless place – now it has become a place of glory and welcome. This is our hope as Christians.
The Ascension also speaks of the completion of Christ’s work. The great cycle of nativity, crucifixion and resurrection comes to completion at the Ascension. God has been born among us, has suffered death at our hands, overcame death to rise again, and now returns to his Father in glory. I think it is a mistake to see these things as one-off events fixed in time, for Christ is always born among us, always suffers at our hands, always rises from death, and always rises to sit at the right hand of the Father. In this word ‘always’, is contained the life of the world, past, present and future. For Christ’s life is eternally tied to that of the world, in birth and death, in suffering and in hope, in dismay and in glory. All these things are now lodged with God. Such was his experience of and immersion in the life of the world, that Christ’s eternal task is to intercede for humankind at God’s right hand.
Ascension is also tied with Kingship. It is why the great Ascension hymn begins ‘Crown him with many crowns’. We celebrate the Feast of Christ the King on the Sunday before Advent, but the idea is lodged here at Ascensiontide too. This is the feast of the crowning of the King of Love, the King with wounded hands and side, the King of the lowly and meek, the King of all that is. So much complexity and mystery is tied up in that one word, ‘King’. And, of course, Christians are called to be citizens of the Kingdom: our lives, our souls, our faith, our hope, are all fulfilled in the reign of Christ our King.
But Ascension is also about letting go. Jesus left his disciples on that hill top; he let go of their hands. I still remember very clearly the day when my Dad was teaching me how to ride a bike. I glanced behind me and realized that Dad had let me go – I was riding by myself. Now it was over to the Disciples, and it still is. After Ascension, there were no more sightings, no more breakfasts by the lake or shared meals. The disciples doubted Jesus when he was taken away to be crucified, but became rejoicing believers after the Resurrection. Now, certainty has gone again, and there is a great pause – a pause not unlike the pause between Jesus’s burial and resurrection. This pause is a little longer. We wait, this week. We wait for the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. And it is the Spirit, dwelling within, who gives us the ability to walk as Christ’s disciples in this world, and to follow him through the gates of glory when our life is done.
Rev’d Dr Anne Morris
Vicar of Saint Oswald’s Church, Knuzden