What is Ascension Day?
This is, to many, a rather puzzling celebration! Jesus ascending to heaven in clouds of glory is difficult to fit into the patterns of our experience. There are, of course, wonderful paintings of the scene – see, for example, the Rembrandt’s wonderful vision at https://www.wikiart.org/en/rembrandt/the-ascension-of-christ-1636
There is a certain logic to this day, however. It was necessary for the disciples to be convinced that Jesus’ death was not the end of the story. There are accounts in all four Gospels of Jesus appearing to a number of his followers after the crucifixion. The two most memorable accounts are perhaps when he talked with some of them as they walked to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), and when Peter and others saw him on the shore as they were fishing in the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-19). These appearances showed that Jesus’ death was not final as he continued to teach and inspire them in bodily form. But he told them this could not continue indefinitely. In his physical absence they should become his witnesses to the whole world and he promised that they would not be left alone:
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. (Acts 1:8-9)
Why does Ascension Day always fall on a Thursday?
On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus spoke to his disciples about many things. He said that he would be seen by the disciples after his death, and that these appearances would last ‘a while’, after which he would be ‘taken up into heaven’. Luke specifies (in Acts) that this would happen 40 days after his resurrection on Easter Sunday – which is why Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday.
‘In the first book [i.e. The Gospel according to Luke], 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 over the course of 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’ (Acts 1: 1-5).
What is the significance of ‘forty days’?
The expression ‘forty days’ or ‘forty days and nights’ is found many times in the Old Testament, often implying simply ‘a long time’ For Christians it developed a particular association with the concept of a time of preparation. In some traditions – such as the Celtic tradition, Advent, a time of preparation, lasted forty days. Lent, the period of preparation for the events of Good Friday and Easter, reflects the forty days during which Christ was tempted in the wilderness before starting on his public ministry. It was fitting for Christ’s post-resurrection appearances to continue for a period of forty days before his Ascension. You can find out more about this at: https://www.gotquestions.org/40-days-Bible.html
Why is Ascension Day important?
The death of Jesus left the disciples in a state of confusion and of doubt. They still needed the guidance and encouragement of their ‘Master’. The resurrection appearances prepared them for the extraordinary event they were about to witness, when they would see Jesus ‘taken up’ from their world into heaven. We read in John’s Gospel that Jesus told them on the evening before his death:
‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you’ (John 14:15-17).
So we now look forward to remembering that happening at Pentecost, 31st May, when there will be a new blog.
A prayer for Ascensiontide:
Lord God, we give you thanks because, after his most glorious resurrection,
your Son appeared to his disciples,
and in their sight ascended into heaven to prepare a place for us;
that where he is, thither we might also ascend,
and reign with him in glory. Amen.