Tuesday, May 3, 2016


The Ascension - John Singleton Copley
Ascension -- John Singleton Copley (1775)

Ascension Day is one of the principal feasts of the Christian Calendar. This means that it is to be ranked alongside Christmas, Easter  and and Pentecost. Yet, it has rarely, if ever, been accorded the same sort of importance in the life of the Church or the practice of individual Christians. Partly, this is because the event it commemorates -- the ascension of the risen Jesus -- is recorded by only one evangelist, Luke, though that is also true of the Epiphany which has been much more prominent. Partly, it is because over the centuries the precise location of Ascension in the Christian year has been subject to local variation. But a more important reason is that the theological significance of the event Ascension celebrates is squeezed into a very short period of time between the Resurrection on one side, and and the coming of Holy Spirit at Pentecost on the other. The modern calendar reflects the difficulty, but has intensified it, by scrapping the season of Ascensiontide, and rolling it in to Easter.

This means that we are even more at risk of overlooking the special significance of Ascension, namley the unique way in which the brief period between Ascension Day and Pentecost unites us, and Christians of every age, with the first disciples. Peter, John, Andrew and so on, saw Jesus in the flesh. They walked and talked with him, watched and listened to him over the years of his ministry. It ended in apparent failure of course, but then, as physical witnesses of the Risen Christ, they were granted a second opportunity to be in the privileged company of the Son of God.

In the pursuit of our discipleship we do not have these advantages. We must live in faith in a way that those few Galileans did not have to do. Ascension marks the point at which Jesus left them to complete their discipleship, by finding a faith just like ours. His departure "from their sight"  meant that  for a time they had to stand firm in knowledge of the Resurrection, without his unique presence to sustain them. In this way, his ascension required them to prepare themselves for what the rest of us rely on -- a Holy Spirit that draws us into the eternal life of the Father whom we do not see and the Son whom we never met.

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