Forty days into the fifty-day season of Easter sits the Feast of the Ascension. It falls on a Thursday. Not so very long ago the poet William Blake could write two poems titled “Holy Thursday” trusting his readers understood the reference not to Maundy Thursday in Holy Week but to the Feast of the Ascension late in the season of Easter. Then it was a high holy day. Now it is overlooked and nearly forgotten.
The church we know is often embarrassed by such odd testimony (Luke 24:50-53, Acts 1:6-11 & Ephesians 1:15-23). When this is the case congregations and preachers breathe a sigh of relief that the Ascension is celebrated on a Thursday instead of on a Sunday. It means the celebration of the Ascension can slip by, unnoticed. But such overlooking and forgetting is not without danger to the church’s long-term prophetic memory and radical identity. In our eagerness to counter those whose literal readings of the Bible make little room for the interpretive wisdom of the Holy Spirit we can also become literal readers, unable or unwilling to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church as Jesus is lifted up to sit at God’s right hand.
“Who is in charge here?” This is the question answered at the Ascension. The answer is repeated whenever congregations of The United Church of Canada recite its contemporary affirmation of faith – A New Creed – confessing: “Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope.” The Ascension is the moment when the suffering servant Messiah, Jesus, is installed as our judge and our hope. He – not the boss, not the Prime Minister or President, not the powers that be, not fate, not oppression, not death – is in charge here. Hallelujah!
This is the reason we, at University Hill Congregation, include the celebration of Ascension Day as an integral part of the rhythm of the Christian Year. We do not gather on the Holy Thursday that William Blake’s poetry describes. Instead, we name the sixth Sunday of Easter “Ascension Sunday.” We host the scriptures for the Feast of the Ascension. We glimpse new life in God’s future through the lens of the Ascension of Jesus, the one who has already broken through all of our categories by rising from the dead and now does so again as he is lifted up in glory. We do not pretend to have the Ascension figured out. We hope and pray it figures us out. We believe erasing this story from our collective memory inevitably results in a church with symptoms of dementia, acting in ways that reveal it is losing touch with its true identity.
We are aided in our celebration of this marginalized festival by hymns that name the paradox of the servant Jesus being also ascended as cosmic judge. Sylvia Dunstan’s “You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd” (Voices United #210) beautifully captures this thick reality: “You, who walk each day beside us, sit in power at God’s side.” The Iona Community’s hymn “Forsaking Chariots of Fire” (VU #192) offers the congregation a contemporary interpretive lens through which to retell and re-envision the Ascension: “He has to go, as from the grave he had to rise: in order to be everywhere he must depart to live, not in one place, but in each heart.” And there, hidden away in Voices United, is a little known Ascension Day Prayer (#191) teaching the church to pray: “We thank you that <Jesus> alone commands our lives, and gives us freedom to love the world.”
On Ascension Day we sing, preach and pray out of the culmination of the news we first hear at the Annunciation of the angel Gabriel to mother Mary: the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger is the long awaited “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). How could we fail to celebrate his ascension to the place of highest honour in our lives and life together?