In the English-speaking world, for the most part, the weekday festivals of Christianity have all but disappeared. So Ascension Thursday – the day that is forty days after Easter Sunday – usually passes without a murmur outside the ranks of those who are very regular church-goers.
Even in those countries where it is a ‘Holiday of Obligation to attend Mass’ (a strange concept: threatening people with being guilty of a sin if they do not go and joyfully thank God for his goodness!) it gets passed over.
Religion is easy to remember on a Sunday, but there is just too much to do on a normal weekday to fit in one more thing. We all know the feeling: the week is full, and now something else comes up – and one recalls that the camel’s back was broken by adding one more straw. This year is different. Lockdown may be easing in many places but we still have more time, we know that we must somehow structure our time ourselves rather than just fall in with the structures that work and other tasks impose on us, and the churches are still closed. This is a good time to think again about celebrating, in lockdown, Ascension Day. This year it is this Thursday: May 21.
The whole background to this feast comes from just one early Christian author: Luke. He ends his gospel – and the stories of the encounters with the risen Lord after Easter – with these words:
Then [Jesus] 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 (Lk 24:50-3).
Then Luke begins his second work, the Acts of the Apostles, with this:
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.
After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 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; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 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.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward 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.” (Acts 1:1-11).
Within Luke’s overarching vision of history, the ascension marks a key turning point from when the risen Christ was present visibly to one group of disciples gathered in and around Jerusalem to his being present among his disciples everywhere. We have to imagine Luke travelling from community to community giving performances of his take on ‘the gospel’ while seeking to show that all these churches were part of a network that made up the new people of God.
In each gathering he wanted to affirm that the risen Jesus had both left them – in the sense that they could not directly see him: ‘he was taken from their sight’ – but also was no longer confined to one place, one group, one moment. After the Ascension, he was there in the community gathered and now listening to Luke.
This year most of us cannot gather in big groups. This year it is small groups if you are in lockdown with family / friends, or you are alone. But the risen Lord’s presence is not confined: he is with you in lockdown – and there is no more appropriate moment to experience this anew than on Ascension Day! There is no more appropriate day in the whole liturgical year to remember the presence of the Christ among us.
Here is a simple liturgy to celebrate when you gather to eat.
Leader: It’s 40 days since Easter Sunday, it is Ascension Day: the risen Lord is ‘rising upwards.’ So let’s recall what Luke says about this day.
Reader: Choose either the longer passage above (from Acts) or the shorter one (from Luke’s gospel).
Reader 2: if people are comfortable with home liturgies, a second reader could read the other passage. If you do have both readings, the best sequence is the gospel reading followed by the one from Acts.
Leader or someone else: Lord Jesus, bless us now as you blessed those gathered in Bethany by asking the Father to hear our prayers for all who are suffering in a whole complex range of ways from this virus, for all who care for them, and for us gathered here in your presence. Allueia!
This prayer can be your ‘grace before meals.’ Then end the meal with a ‘grace after meals’ like this:
Father, we thank you for what we have enjoyed eating and for our joy around this table. Look on us gathered here in the presence of Jesus, risen from the dead and seated at your right hand, and bless us on our journey. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Alleluia!
The forty days between Easter Sunday and Ascension Thursday form in the Christian year a single prolonged feast: the key note in every prayer is ‘Alleluia’ (Praised be God!). We sing this because the Father has raised Jesus from the tomb and given us, the People of God, new life. Life, not death, has the last word! Praised be God!
Professor of Historical Theology
University of Nottingham