Some Ascension Day thoughts from the Rev. Janet Calderley:
Acts 1:1-11 New Revised Standard Version
The Promise of the Holy Spirit
1 In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’
The Ascension of Jesus
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ 7 He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’
This year Thursday May 21st is Ascension Day, 40 days after Easter when the Church commemorates Jesus’ return to heaven. As a non-conformist I haven’t really spent much time thinking about the Ascension and we don’t usually in the URC mark the occasion in any way but for many Christians it is an important Holy Day. When I was training for ministry the Cambridge Theological Federation, of which the URC Westminster College was a part, held a service in the court of Westcott House, one of the two Anglican colleges. The smoke of incense rising into the air and rockets shooting into the sky symbolised Christ’s rising into the clouds.
Throughout history artists have depicted Christ’s ascension by showing him rising up surrounded by clouds and often, as in the picture above, with just Christ’s feet visible beneath the cloud. During my time at Cambridge I visited the shrine of Walsingham in Norfolk where the ceiling of the chapel of the ascension in the Anglican shrine is moulded into a 3D sculpture of clouds with two feet, complete with the nail holes from the crucifixion, hanging down beneath. However this seeming obsession in art with the mechanics of the ascension led one minister to comment, ‘it’s not about hovering feet’.
She wrote about the Ascension, ‘I struggle so much with the image the term conjures up for me: Jesus rising up, maybe like Superman, maybe like Elliott on his bicycle with ET in his basket, until he disappears into the clouds. For most of the artists, Jesus is pictured as rising up from the earth into clouds. It’s only in the more recent images, now that we know that heaven is not literally ‘up there’, that artists have tried to find other ways of picturing the Ascension, and even then most of them still have a sense of Jesus being in the sky.’ (Rev Doc Geek).
Another commentator wrote, ‘We do not, as a matter of fact, believe that Jesus ended his earthly ministry with the equivalent of a rocket launch, rising a few hundred miles above the earth. Nor do we think Jesus was the first to be “beamed up,” to use the term made so familiar by the television series Star Trek.’ (Ronald Cole Turner).
So, what are we doing today, if we’re not remembering Jesus literally heading up into space? The reading above isn’t just a description of the Ascension, it is the culmination of Jesus’ ministry on earth, the commissioning of his disciples to be his witnesses, to carry on his work and fulfil the purposes of God. The Ascension also reminds us again about who Jesus Christ truly is. Through the Ascension we see Jesus as equal with the Father, seated at the Father’s right hand, bearing authority over the whole world. And the sender of the Holy Spirit to enable and encourage us so that we may joyfully proclaim that Jesus Christ is the Lord, ruler of everything in our lives.
And if we do need a visual image to help us to recognize that I would rather imagine Jesus leading us up a hillside with the clouds coming down enveloping us in a bright mysterious world, taking us out of our everyday mundane existence. Then in this private moment sharing his truth, vision and mission with and for us before walking off into the mist, leaving us as the clouds lift to return to a familiar but different world as changed people, ready to do his will.