Ascension Day is one of the seven principal feasts of the Christian Calendar. This means it is to be ranked on a par with Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. Yet, while this is the ‘official’ position, Ascension has rarely been accorded the same sort of prominence as the other major feasts, either in the life of the Church or in the practice of individual Christians.
Why has there been this benign neglect? Perhaps it is in part because the event Ascension commemorates -- the heavenly departure of the risen Jesus -- is recorded by only one evangelist, Luke, though he does tell the story twice, first in his Gospel and then in Acts. Perhaps it is because over the centuries, unlike Christmas and Easter, Ascension’s precise location in the Christian year has been subject to local variation. But mainly, I think, it is because the theological significance of the event it celebrates is very hard to separate from the Easter Resurrection and the coming of Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
This is reflected in our modern calendar. Previously, Ascension had a season all to itself – the ten days of Ascensiontide with special ceremonies by which it was marked. Now Ascension Day has been swept into the Easter season. Is this a gain, or a loss?
It is a loss if it leads us to miss the theological significance of the period between Ascension Day and Pentecost. These few days are important because they unite us in a rather special way with the first disciples. Peter, John, Andrew and so on, saw Jesus in the flesh. For three years, they were able to walk and talk with him. They watched and listened as he taught and healed and prophesied and challenged his listeners in the course of his ministry. Then, just as his mission was attracting more and more interest, it ground to a halt in apparent failure. The teacher and preacher to whom they had given their lives, was arrested, condemned and executed. To their astonishment, however, they were granted a second opportunity, to be physical witnesses of the Risen Christ, and so to enter again the privileged company of one they now knew to be the Son of God.
No Christians ever since have had the experience that blessed the lives of the Apostles. While they drew on their own experience, we have to rely on their testimony. In the pursuit of our discipleship we must live by faith in a way that those few Galileans did not have to do. They were there, they saw, they heard.
Ascension marks the point at which Jesus finally left them. Having led them out of Jerusalem as far as Bethany, in the very act of blessing them, Luke tells us, he withdrew and was taken ‘out of their sight’. This must have been a critical moment. His departure "from their sight" meant that for the first time, they had to stand firm in their discipleship, without his unique presence to sustain them. It was his Ascension, not his Resurrection, that asked something new of them. Now for the first time they stood on level ground with the rest of us, and were required to prepare themselves for what all Christians must rely upon – the advent of a Holy Spirit at Pentecost, that ‘third person’ of the Trinity who leads us into the eternal life of the Father, whom we do not see, and of the Son, whom we never met.
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