Jesus said to his disciples, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you– that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
Today the Church celebrates Ascension Day, which The Book of Common Prayer considers a Principal Feast, equal in importance to Easter Day and Christmas. That might surprise you, especially given that our celebration of this feast usually pales in comparison to those other great days. So what makes Ascension Day so important?
The account of the Ascension, told both at the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts, helps answer that question. Luke tells us that after gathering his disciples together Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, blessed them, and then withdrew into heaven. It seems that it should have been a moment of sadness. Jesus has left, after all. But the Scripture tells us that Jesus’ disciples were filled with joy and were continually in the temple blessing God. For the disciples the Ascension marked a significant change, but it was not a change to lament but celebrate. In his Ascension Jesus became not less but more available. As a collect from the Prayer Book says, Jesus ‘ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things.’ Jesus is not confined to a specific place or a specific time. His presence and love is available to all.
In a time of such suffering and pain, there seems to be little cause for celebration. Yet today we are invited to celebrate, even if it seems foolish to do so and even if we don’t feel especially joyful. The rhythm of the Church year invites us to connect with something that transcends our current realities and reminds us that we live in God’s time. So today I pray that you will celebrate, even for a moment, that Jesus is present with us and will never leave us. Perhaps the words of a beloved hymn for this day, which you see below, can be a helpful start. As we celebrate I pray that the joy of the disciples might be ours as well.
Hail the day that sees him rise, Alleluia!
glorious to his native skies; Alleluia!
Christ awhile to mortals given, Alleluia!
enters now the highest heaven! Alleluia!
Lord beyond our mortal sight, Alleluia!
raise our hearts to reach thy height, Alleluia!
there thy face unclouded see, Alleluia!
find our heaven of heavens in thee. Alleluia!
(Charles Wesley; The Hymnal 1982 214)
Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
(The Book of Common Prayer p. 226)