Read the text here: Acts 1:1-14
Endings and Beginnings
In the early years of the church through most of history the Feast of the Ascension held as important a place in the lives of worshippers as did Christmas. In fact, in some ways it was more important. But falling as it does on the 40th day after Easter, which is always on a Thursday, means that the day never cycles around to Sunday like most of the rest of our festivals. So as we have entered into the modern world the Feast of the Ascension has been lost and goes uncelebrated by most Christians, unless it is moved to the 7th Sunday of Easter.
This is a loss because the ancients had it right – Ascension is essential to not only our understanding of our faith, but also to our living as disciples in this world. For the event of the Ascension is THE pivotal event in the story of Jesus for the church. For Luke, the author of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, this story was so important that he told it twice. The first time is right at the very end of the Gospel of Luke 24:44-53; and then the Book of Acts begins with retelling the same story – Acts 1:1-11. Up until then Jesus had, for 40 days after the Resurrection, been present with and teaching his disciples – why? He is preparing them for their work, the mission of sharing the Good News of Jesus. And this work will only begin after the Ascension. Jesus must depart in order for the disciples to take on their calling.
So the story of the Ascension is both a story of endings and a story of beginnings. The Ascension brings to a close Jesus’ physical life among the disciples and among us humans. Jesus physically departs to return to God promising to return. But it is also a story of the beginnings of the ministry of the disciples and of the church. As long as Jesus is physically present with the disciples they will never step out on their own. Only after Jesus has departed will they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and begin to move forward doing the work that Jesus called them to do – that is, the work of the proclamation of the Good News, which includes sharing God’s love and grace in both words and deeds.
Of course, they are not enthusiastic about this. They don’t want Jesus to leave. That is obvious. And even right at the end they are asking Jesus when he will come again and bring in the Kingdom of God in its fullness. Jesus responds simply by telling them that they should not concern themselves with that and just get to work. Even as Jesus disappears the disciples are standing there gazing into the heavens and have to be reminded by the two men in white robes (angels?) that they have work to do. Then they return to their room in Jerusalem and lock the door and do… well, nothing. Until the Holy Spirit comes and pushes them into the streets and then, empowered by the Holy Spirit, the work begins.
And the work of the Spirit continues with us. For we are called to follow in the footsteps of the original disciples doing exactly the same work: proclaiming God’s love and grace through word and deed. Perhaps the word “proclaiming” gets in the way, since for most of us it means speaking or talking. So I’ll put it another way – the work to which we are called to is to embody God’s love and grace in a way that it is a part of how we live and how we are in relationship with others. But too often we are like the disciples in this Ascension story, pleading with Jesus to come back so we don’t have to do anything and then gazing into the sky trying to catch a glimpse of the holy. So the words of the men in white robes are for us – time to get to work! The gift of the Spirit is showered upon us! And God empowers us in our lives as well.
One of the liturgical traditions that is observed during the Ascension Day liturgy is that the Paschal candle is extinguished after the reading of the Gospel. The Paschal candle has been lit throughout the season of Easter to symbolize the physical presence of the risen Christ with the disciples. The Paschal candle is then extinguished on Ascension Day to symbolize that Jesus is no longer physically present. Over the years, I have had a few folks object to this tradition. “But Jesus is still present with us, isn’t he?” Yes, but in a different way. We now experience the presence of the risen Christ in a whole variety of different ways and the primary way is through the gift of community. Christ is present with us most profoundly in community. In our very individualist society we have a hard time with this one. We think that everything about our faith is all about me and Jesus alone and so we too often shut out the community. And when we do this we shut ourselves off from one of God’s greatest gifts. For it is through others, through the community that we experience the presence of the risen Christ most profoundly.
This focus on the gift of community and the calling of all the Baptized to live lives that reflect the Good News of God’s love and grace is what is proclaimed at Ascension. Perhaps we should adjust the candle tradition slightly. Perhaps a more appropriate symbol would be to first distribute the flame from the Paschal candle to the community before extinguishing the Paschal candle. In this way we are reminded of our calling to be the light of the world; to be Christ to our neighbor; to love and serve God through loving and serving others.