Ascension Day falls on Thursday 21st May, and marks the ending of the 40 days following Easter, when the Church joyfully celebrates Christ’s resurrection from the dead.
The biblical accounts tell of the way the risen Lord revealed himself to his disciples, an experience which changed them from being terrified and demoralised by the horror of Calvary, to being filled with joy and hope.
After the Ascension they will no longer see Jesus, but will await the promised Holy Spirit, who will equip them to share the love, joy, forgiveness and peace of Christ with all people.
On Good Friday we read that the final words of Jesus on the cross were: ‘It is finished’. (John 19.30) And if those words signified his ‘Mission Accomplished’ on earth, then Ascension Day is all about ‘A Mission to Accomplish’.
For as he left them, lifting his hands in blessing, the disciples knew that their mission was to witness to God’s unfailing and eternal love for the world and all people. It is a continuing mission that is ours today.
If we try to understand the precise nature of the Ascension, we find we are in one of those inexplicable areas, where we must be content to consider what it means rather than how it actually happened. We no longer see the world from the first century perspective of a three-tier universe, with heaven up in the sky, earth in the middle and a dark netherworld beneath, as depicted by so many artists.
Yet our Creeds speak of Jesus descending – ‘for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven’ – and if we cannot comprehend where heaven might be as a place, we can conceive of an existence that lifts us beyond our physical embodiment here on earth. At the Ascension we are given a glimpse of the heavenly glory of God, in a realm which is beyond our understanding and yet, paradoxically, because of Christ’s incarnation, is also very present to us in our earthly lives.
In Jesus Christ we have the descent of the divine into the very heart of our humanity and beyond, to the depths of the grave – ‘he descended to the dead’ – as the Creed continues. Jesus’ descent to the dead, and the Christian doctrine of the harrowing of hell, reveals that there is nowhere God is not. Nowhere is beyond God’s saving grace and power.
So the Ascension does not just speak about the divinity of Christ, but about our humanity – our broken and lost humanity – which we ourselves can do nothing to save. The present situation we are all living in with Covid-19 is a stark reminder of this truth. As Jesus our Redeemer returns to God, so he carries our humanity to God, uniting us with the Father.
The Church now awaits the coming of the Holy Spirit, celebrated at Pentecost, when we remember the gift of God’s Spirit to guide our feet into the ways of justice, freedom, love, joy and peace. May we all know the loving presence of our risen, ascended Lord, now and in the future, whatever that may hold.
The Collect 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 for ever. Amen.