By the Rev’d Phil Wales
Hail the day that sees him rise, Alleluia!
to his throne beyond the skies. Alleluia!
Christ, the Lamb for sinners given, Alleluia!
enters now the highest heaven. Alleluia!
Charles Wesley (1739)
Ascension Day (which the church celebrated yesterday) occurs 40 days after Easter and 10 days before Pentecost. It marks the moment when the resurrected Jesus returned to heaven having finished his earthly ministry. He ascended immediately after telling his followers to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit which was to come “not many days from now”. All this is told to us by St Luke at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles (1.1-11).
Sometimes Ascension Day services take place outdoors perhaps at the top of a hill and may even involve fireworks. This astonishing event is frequently depicted in paintings or even more vividly and dramatically in decorative bosses or statues of Christ’s feet in the church ceiling.
Such images help us to understand something of what the disciples experienced. Yet I wonder whether, by focusing on these visual aspects, we could be drawn away from noticing how we and the world has been changed by all that has taken place.
Like those first Apostles we are waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Yet, unlike them, we know that this is to happen. So, how might they, unlike us, have responded to Christ being taken out of sight not knowing when His promise to them would be fulfilled? Some have suggested that during this time of waiting their joy at being reunited with Him would have given way to feelings of loss, reawakening their grief and desolation at his death before his resurrection. But this is to see Jesus’ Ascension as an act of separation, or parting, rather than a supreme act of union. Through Jesus’ reunion with his Father, as he foretold, we all now may become united with God through Jesus.
As those first disciples gazed upwards two angels appeared and asked them “Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” Whatever it was that they may have been feeling in that moment this gave them the prompt they needed to move to action. The angels brought the disciples “back to earth” to make themselves ready to tell the world what has happened. But it is now a world which has been transformed completely through a new relationship with God through Christ’s incarnation, his life, death, resurrection and ascension. And this is why we, with them proclaim “Rejoice! God has gone up.”
A Sonnet for Ascension Day
We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we our selves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed