"The bodily ascension of the resurrected Jesus and what it means for you, for me, and for the whole of humanity is one of of the most underappreciated and least understood truths of the gospel. It's a peculiar, unprecedented scene to be sure, seemingly almost too strange to be true. But there it is, like a first-century take on a twenty-first-century science-fiction film, the resurrected Jesus being transported into another realm, 'lifted up' into another dimension, 'carried into heaven' (Acts 1:9; Luke 24:51)."
—From Ch. 39 ("Ascension"), Jesus Journey
As Trent points out, Jesus’ ascension is a key move in the whole Gospel story. In the next chapter of his book, Trent goes so far as to name Jesus’ ascension as the third of the three crucial elements of the story. “There are three great truths," he writes, "on which just about everything else in Christianity rests: The Trinity, the incarnation, and the ascension.” [pg. 239]
I’m heartily in agreement with Trent on most everything, and this is just another! When we come to Ascension Day—which, by the way, is today, May 25, 2017—we come to what is perhaps the most neglected day of the entirety of the church’s calendar, at least relative to its importance.
There was a time when Ascension celebrations were as great or, some say, even greater than those of Easter. Still in several European countries it is a public holiday, some with their own particular celebrations and customs that have been developed along the way: in Sweden, for instance, one custom is to go out into the forest very early in the morning on this day to hear the birds at sunrise, especially hoping to hear the cuckoo call. There is picnicking and singing, playing music and dancing. In the church one of the customs that developed was to bless the fields and the crops on this day: the King is on his throne, the spring planting is happening, so we ask the King’s blessing on the fruit of the earth and of our labours.
Ascension Day is the fortieth day of Eastertide (thirty-ninth day after Easter Sunday). God seems to like forty as a symbolic number, particularly as a symbolic number of redemption leading to new creation: during the flood it rained for forty days and forty nights; the people of Israel ate manna and wondered about in the wilderness for forty years; Moses met with the Lord in the cloud on the mountain for forty days during the time he received the Ten Commandments; Caleb and Joshua led the spies that went into the promised land on a mission that lasted forty days. Jesus, of course, brought all of this to its culmination when he fasted and prayed and prepared in the wilderness for forty days and then stood down the Satan in their tête-à-tête, mano-a-mano.
Jesus’ ascension is all about new creation. The rightful King—the one who owns everything because it was made “through him and for him” (Col. 1:16), and the one who demonstrated that he can handle dominion and reign without it going to his head, so to say, and causing problems (as he came “not to be served but to serve” and “to lay down his life as a ransom for many” in Mark 10:45)—is now on the throne. This is, admittedly, a bit of a mind-bender, as Trent navigates so well for us in this chapter on the ascension. I love how he brought Stephen’s vision from Acts 7:55-56 into this because indeed ascension is a place the veil thins, and the reality of Jesus’ kingship puts things into perspective.
Trent also takes us to the vision in Daniel 7:13-14. Ascension takes us there, and to the visions of the Revelation of St John as well. In these Old and New Testament visions our dichotomy of the physical and the spiritual break down: the world’s powers and empires and authorities rage and posture and conspire and collude; super-sized multi-national corporations attempt to define what we need, what we want, what is real, indeed in ways even what we are and what narratives lend meaning; celebrities and the unimaginably-wealthy are paraded before our attention constantly, as if their lives rise above the constraints all mere mortals face. In the meantime we all know that the weak and the world’s poor take the brunt…
So where does Jesus’ ascension come near to us now, in the meantime?
- I take delight in that I—even I!—can come to the throne and be known, received, heard.
- I take hope in that the “man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Isaiah 53:3) has been so thoroughly vindicated! In my role as an Anglican priest, I sit with the suffering, the unemployed, the homeless, the immigrant with unsure future and status, the jilted, the sick, the dying, the grieving… but ascension reminds me that those circumstances need not be the last word.
- I take courage in that Jesus’ ascension means we can know, in spite of all, that the Good does in fact win in the end, and that, in fact, the Good, just-and-holy, joyful One has indeed won already and is awake, aware, at watch, willing. Without this hope I find that being a father would be unbearably terrifying, and being a spiritual father (my work as a priest) would be reduced to make-believe.
- Yes, it is true that Jesus, though enthroned, is (yet) waiting and this waiting asks faith of me. He is waiting for the appointed right time to come and consummate his well-deserved, hard-won reign, and to bring every knee to bow and every tongue to confess his majesty. But also in this time of waiting I can take on humility and the acknowledgement of my limits, and take heart that the story spreads and the name of the King is honoured ever more widely.
- Finally, I simply sit and ponder and wonder and take joy. The Gospel story, so enigmatic, so uncompromisingly realistic in reaching to our ugly desperate depths, so demanding and measuring of me, of us—and then, so full of surprise and of joy!
In the church I lead we celebrate Jesus’ ascension outdoors: it just seems right.
We celebrate with a picnic in a seaside park on Boston’s North Shore, and then a simple liturgy and prayer—prayer specifically that the King will be recognised as such, honoured, and given the glory he deserves: that his story will capture the very depths of our imaginations and the imaginations of our neighbours and, indeed, of all the world.
Today's guest post is by Tim Clayton: Fr. Tim considers it an honour that he makes an appearance in Jesus Journey, on p. 92. He is husband, father, priest, and author. He lives with his wife Cheryl and their children in a 300-year-old home on Boston’s North Shore, where he serves as rector of Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church. His first book, Exploring Advent with Luke (Ave Maria Press), is a spiritual journey through Advent to the Cradle.
Along with sea kayaking and cross-country skiing, two of Tim's other passions are travel to other cultures, and the outdoors. He taught English in Budapest, Hungary, for a spell just after the Berlin Wall came down and Central Europe opened up. He has led mission or spiritual pilgrimage trips in more than a dozen countries on five continents. His favourite places on the planet (so far!) are Lindisfarne (Holy Island) & Durham Cathedral in north-east England, the Masai Mara in Kenya, and wherever he can be together with his wife, Cheryl.
For Tim, the best of life is his family. He and Cheryl have three wonderful children: two are now young women, and a teen-aged son. They share their old house with a gentle-giant Bernese Mountain Dog, and they await the great day of the resurrection in hopes of reuniting with their abundantly fat-and-fluffy Ragdoll cat.