How will you be celebrating the Feast of the Ascension this May 9? With an all-night vigil? A cathedral service for orphaned children? A celebration of the labour movement? Or none of the above?
Ascension, 40 days after Easter, is the moment when the risen Jesus is “carried up” to heaven. It may be a dramatic scene, but it does not often play a big role in United Church life. Apart from the “beam me up” image it suggests, things that go on “up there” can provoke nervousness. Jesus belongs here among us, doesn’t he? In the faces of the poor. Laughing with children. Trooping beside us as we struggle for justice. Not flying up to some heavenly throne. The Jesus Christ who has all things under his feet appears triumphalistic, hierarchical. The Song of Faith, the United Church’s most recent faith statement, does not mention the Ascension.
There is some biblical warrant for ignoring the Ascension. Of the Gospel writers, only Luke draws out the end of Jesus’ story this way, both in his Gospel (Luke 24:50-51) and, with more descriptive flare, in Acts (1:6-11). So Christians might be forgiven for viewing the Ascension as an awkward intrusion. Besides, it occurs on a Thursday. In May. May, when even in the more resistant of Canada’s climes, spring has at last burst into bud. There are gardens to plant, a long weekend with its promise of summer. All things considered, why bother with the Ascension?
Egeria, a late fourth-century European pilgrim, was not troubled by that question. Her travels to Christian sites throughout the eastern Mediterranean, faithfully recorded in a diary to share with her friends back home, give us a rare glimpse into early church life and practices. She spent Easter in Jerusalem, where the Resurrection feast lasted 40 glorious days. “No one fasts in these forty days,” Egeria reports, not even the most austere monks and nuns. Then, on the 40th day, Christians head to Bethlehem for an all-night vigil in preparation for the Ascension.
From at least the 380s, when we have the first evidence of Ascension celebrations, to the present day, this slice of the Christian story has inspired festivals and reflection. A number of countries continue to celebrate it with a public holiday. William Blake mused poetically on a 1780s Ascension Day service at St. Paul’s Cathedral for the children of London’s Foundling Hospital, where babies were relinquished by their destitute mothers to be raised as orphans. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued an Ascension Day encyclical, Rerum Novarum, on the dignity of work and the right of workers to form unions.
In the United Church Basis of Union, the seventh Article of Faith states that Jesus “rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven, where He ever intercedes for us.” A few Ascension hymns have found their way into our collective repertoire. As a child in Sunday school, I remember drawing a picture of the event, but my neatly printed caption, “Jesus Assends into Heaven,” rather derailed the piety of my artistic offering. So the feast, the doctrine, is there, lurking somewhere in our faith heritage. It is a gift that the church of the past, and our ecumenical partners of the present, invite us to reclaim.
Ascension offers, I would suggest, a pregnant pause. It gives the disciples a few days to ponder Jesus’ mysterious transition from “inside” their world to “outside” time and space. Ten days later, the Spirit will prod them into action at Pentecost. This pause evokes contemplation. Early Christians headed for Bethlehem, source of Jesus’ humble birth, to consider his divine ministry.
We too are invited to live for a few days in this meaning-laden pause, to consider that strange and beautiful juxtaposition of Jesus’ incarnate intimacy and his cosmic radiance, of Jesus’ dusty feet and his heavenly intercession. Why bother with the Ascension? The psalm appointed for Ascension Day declares, “God has gone up with a shout!” (Psalm 47:5). It reminds us that a shout echoes between earth and heaven. It rings out love and justice — for tiny bands of disciples and for all God’s beloved creation, in all times and places. And that’s not bad for a Thursday in May, is it?
Rev. Sandra Beardsall is a professor of church history and ecumenics at St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon.
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