Stations of the Resurrection: Ascension
This is the third in our series of Stations of the Resurrection. This one covers the Ascension of Jesus and Thy Kingdom Come. Thanks, again, to the Reverend Sue Binks for these Stations. Sue ministers in the United Benefice of Kirkdale with Harome, Nunnington and Pockley in North Yorkshire. Sorry it’s a bit late but it’s well worth sharing!
Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in him shall never die. Alleluia
Reading from Acts
After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by making convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me: for John baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit not many days from now’.
So, when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or the periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 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.’
When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heavenActs of the Apostles 1:3-11
Ascension Day is a festival that always has its home on a humble working day in the middle of the week, but it marks an important change in the Christian story. Jesus is no longer physically present in this world – but he hasn’t abandoned it either. Through the gift of the Spirit, he will be more present. In his book Open to Judgement, Rowan Williams writes, ‘He is with us as the light we see by, we see the world in a new way because we see it through him, we see it with his eyes.’ To see the world in a new light is the invitation given to the people of God – this is our task this day – in the middle of the week, in its events and people, to look at the world through the eyes of God revealed in Jesus risen and ascended.
Reading from Colossians
through him God chose to reconcile the whole world universe to himself, making peace through the shedding of his blood on the Cross – to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, through him aloneColossians 1:20
Christ’s earthly life ends in high drama. He is swathed in cloud, and disappears heavenwards, leaving his followers gaping – all may be too visionary and frothy. The Ascension is a powerful allegory, pointing to a fundamental theological truth. God lies beyond our human understanding, or as the theologian Karl Rahner put it, ‘God is absolute mystery’.
The genesis of this lies in the Old Testament. When Moses asks God his name, he receives a brusque, uncompromising reply: ‘I am that I am.’ Later a request to see God’s glory meets with a chilling response ‘you cannot see my face for man shall not see me and live.’ Nothing is divulged, and it cannot be, for there is a built-in invisibility, incomprehensibility, and otherness about God. This can all come over as a touch negative and overly metaphysical – we need an ascension theology to give us something to bite on.
In the New Testament there is a constant see- sawing between the absent God and the present Lord. The carpenter of Nazareth is also the unknowable cosmic God of St Paul. The baby in the Bethlehem manger doubles up as the inaccessible light of the world. The Jesus who eats fish for breakfast is also the icon of God.
Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, an epistle of soaring insight, describes how the crucified rebel, Jesus of Nazareth, is transformed into the one who is the image of the invisible God, first born of all creation, and in whom all things are held together. The impact of this is awesome. Jesus is no longer time- bound, culturally limited, and lumbered with the ethics and thought forms of his day. He has taken on cosmic significance, and become universal, transcendent, and beyond time.
Cloud of unknowing
The Ascension urges us to search for the Holy One in the world and in the cloud of unknowing. As we all have experienced in these last weeks of the pandemic, it is relatively easy to see God in the natural order – the birdsong, the blue skies, the spring blossom – all carved by God’s hand and the thorns and trees are redolent of the wood of Calvery. To find his presence in humanity is a more serious challenge – yes readily visible in the face of a smiling child, the kindness of strangers, the interchange of lovers, and in the visage of those dear to us – but unearthing it in the dark places of human behaviour is a tough assignment.
The carpenter of Nazareth has evolved into God, whose gaze enfolds the whole world. This compels us to reflect on our Christian living. The eucharist becomes not just the dramatization of the final meal – it is a deep mystery in which we sometimes catch a flicker of God’s glory, a taste of eternity. The cloud thins and we experience a momentary foretaste of the cosmic Christ. The compass of our prayer is expanded too. It is not just a dialogue with the earthly Jesus, but a silent or word- studded waiting in the presence of the invisible God. The daily round and slow unfurling of our lives can flower into a constant awareness of the God who lies beyond knowing.
George Herbert’s hymn captures this:
‘a man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye,
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then heaven espy’
The Ascension of the Lord is a poetic assurance that beyond the turmoil and uncertainty of this world lies an inconceivable glory, and undying hope. We can even in these days of human physical limitation venture to seek the ascended Lord in the glory of nature, the sweep of humanity, and in the empty silence of contemplative prayer – truly a spiritual odyssey.
Yours, Lord, is the greatness, the power, the glory, the splendour and the majesty. Everything in heaven and earth is yours. All things come from you, and of your own do we give you1 Chronicles 29:11
Collect Prayer for Ascension Day
Grant, we pray, almighty God,
That as we believe your only begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ
To have ascended into the heavens,
So, we in heart and mind may also ascend
And with him continually dwell;
Who is alive and reigns with you,
In the unity of the Holy Spirit,
One God, now and forever. Amen.
Poem by Denise Levertov: ‘Ascension’
Must now relinquish itself,
Its human cells, molecules,
Five senses, linear vision endured as Man –
The sole all -encompassing gaze
Eye of eternity
Looking towards Thy Kingdom Come
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing GodLuke 24:50-53
Final farewells are sad occasions, whether they take place at an airport or by a graveside. The hymn ‘Blest be the tie that binds’ was written by a Baptist minister in Bradford for his farewell service before he moved to London in 1762, but, having packed his belongings on a wagon, he found the farewell service so emotional that he changed his mind and stayed. So, it is surprising that Jesus’s final goodbye to his disciples appears positively joyful. Gone were the fears and the doubts mingled with joy at his resurrection appearances; now the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were continually in the Temple blessing God.
Luke has two accounts of the event we know as the Ascension. One brings the story of Jesus’s earthly life to an end, and the other opens up the story of what happened next when the Holy Spirit took the lead. In the cosmology of the time, people thought in terms of up and down to express different realms.
Luke is expressing physically the theological truth of God’s immeasurable power raising Christ from death and seating him in heavenly places. The ascension affirms that no part of the universe, the extent of which is beyond our imagining, is barred to God; no authority or power is not subject to him.
Resurrection and ascension
Resurrection and ascension belong together. Without the ascension, while knowing that God raised Jesus, we do not know what happened ultimately to the risen Jesus and have no firm hope for ourselves. The ascension completes the incarnation – the Second Person of the Trinity who took human flesh and was born among us has taken humanity into heaven, opening the door for us to enter heaven too.
In Luke’s Gospel, the ascension brings Jesus’s life on earth to its fulfilment. He took his companions – not necessarily just the disciples – to Bethany, where he had experienced so much hospitality from Martha, Mary and Lazarus. There he blessed them and withdrew into heaven. Luke’s Gospel, which began with heaven opening and divinity coming to earth, ends with heaven opening to receive humanity into heaven.
Acts describes the same event as the first chapter of a new story about the Church, which was promised the Holy Spirit and commissioned to be Jesus’s witnesses. A cloud – biblically, a sign of the presence of God – removed him from the disciples’ sight. The Ascension is the work of the triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – whose love reaches out, sending witnesses to all creation.
Ending or beginning?
Whether the Ascension is a story of an ending or a beginning, Jerusalem, the city at the centre of religious worship and government, became the place of dispersal. The disciples were to begin their witness in Jerusalem and to go from there to all nations and the ends of the earth.
For a group of manual workers from the backwater of Galilee, that was some calling. So – while the Ascension is about Jesus returning to heaven, it is also about a new beginning for all who follow him. Sometimes things have to die in order for there to be new life. Luke’s two accounts underline this. Ascension as the ending of Jesus’s physical presence on earth must have been a bittersweet moment. Ascension, as the beginning of the mission of the Church, anticipates the wonder of Pentecost.
We are caught up in this beginning. Each of us is challenged by Jesus’s ascension to be witnesses of the wonderful works of God who has raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the heavenly places. At the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, Luke described Jesus’s vocation as bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and letting the oppressed go free. Jesus changed people’s physical as well as their spiritual situations – since both are interlinked.
Out into the world
That work goes on today. The consequences of Christ’s ascension, translated for us, are to be witnesses wherever we are placed. Through our baptism and the Eucharist, we go out into the world as the Disciples of Christ, empowered just like the first disciples with the Holy Spirit. Through that same power of that same Spirit, we continue Christ’s mission to be the light, the salt and the leaven in the world. By living our faith well, people do not see us – they see Christ in us; this is how we shine and how we become true agents of the Holy Spirit.
This begins on Ascension Day and continues through the ‘The Novena’ nine days before Pentecost Sunday. It marks the last of the forty days the physically resurrected Christ spent on earth, his farewell and his final commission.
As Christians have reflected upon this event, they have realised its significance for the whole human race. Christ, as the representative of the human race, has taken humanity into the heart of God. Jesus called his followers to spend the days following his physical disappearance waiting on God, in order to receive the Holy Spirit, which God would send them.
Come as the dew in the night and come as rain on dry land,
Come as fire in hours of cold and come to renew in us your image of love.
You call those who follow you to a time of waiting,
That they may be able to receive the gifts you
Delight to shower on your church,
And to receive the empowering Spirit.
Give us receptive hearts and make us fertile ground.
So, in this ‘Novena’ we invite you to ‘Pray thy Kingdom come’, as part of the Global Wave of Prayer. Together we pray for God’s Spirit to move within the Church, equipping us to share God’s love with others and to pay attention to how God is speaking to us today. I commend that you visit: www.thykingdom.global
And now we give you thanks
That after he had ascended far above all heavens
And was seated at the right hand of your majesty,
He sent forth upon the universal Church your holy and life-giving Spirit;
That through the glorious power the joy of the everlasting Gospel
Might go forth into the world.
God raised Christ from the dead
And enthroned him at his right hand in the heavenly realms.
God put all things in subjection beneath his feet
And gave him as head over all things to the Church
We died and our life lies hidden with Christ in God
We set our minds on things above,
When Christ, who is our life, is revealed
We too will be revealed with him in glory
Christ has gone up on high. Alleluia.
Blessings, Reverend Sue Binks