Ascension Day this year is on Thursday 10th May, forty days after Easter. On this day it is my practice to ascend an appropriate local hill with friends to sing a hymn and to pray, before descending to an appropriate local hostelry. When we lived in Macclesfield we went up Shutlingsloe - the Cheshire Matterhorn. Since moving to West Yorkshire, Crow Hill on Midgley Moor has been the destination of choice. It seems an appropriate way to remember the time that risen Jesus took leave of his disciples and disappeared leaving them looking up into the clouds with the promise that they would receive the Holy Spirit and be empowered to continue his mission.
If you go to the top of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and into the tiny Chapel of the Ascension you’ll be shown a stone on which there’s the imprint of the foot of Jesus. Allegedly, as Christ was whisked away from the disciples he left his mark on the earth. If you visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk and go to the Chapel of the Ascension you’ll see in the canopy above the altar a pair of feet dangling out of a cloud – a reminder of what happened. As much as I would like it to, that stone on the top of the Mount of Olives can’t bear the imprint of Jesus’ foot, and feet dangling from a cloud, to be honest just look a bit odd. Going up onto Crow Hill on the moor to sing and pray is enjoyable but it doesn’t get me nearer to the truth of what the Ascension means for my walk of faith.
Perhaps what happens in some church services may shed some light. The practice used to be that after the Ascension Day Gospel had been read, the Paschal Candle was ceremoniously snuffed out. Jesus was gone was the obvious thing that we were to read from this – he’d been with us, but now he was no longer here. In recent reforms the Paschal Candle has been left to continue burning right through to the end of Eastertide which in fact is the Feast of Pentecost – when we celebrate the gift of the Spirit to the church. The implication is obvious – Jesus is still with us. The Gospel record doesn’t have the feel of a group of people who are left abandoned looking up at the dangling feet of Jesus as he disappears into the clouds. St Luke tells us that they returned to the city ‘with great joy; and were continually in the temple blessing God’.
There are a number of occasions during the Christian Year when we’re encouraged to think more deeply about the nature of Jesus, the nature of God – and the Ascension is one of them. In Jesus we know who God is, in Jesus we know who we are, for he is most perfectly God and man. In fact the impression of a foot in the stone on the Mount of Olives is perhaps more powerful than we first suppose for Jesus did leave his mark on earth – but not on stone but on our hearts – for what really ascended from that Mount was our humanity – a restored dignity for the children of God, fed and renewed by the life of the Church, we are people called to live in the presence of God, and to make Christ known wherever we are.
The Ascension is connected closely with the mission that Jesus leaves us with and which God equips us for. At the heart of mission is the longing for things to be different, our yearning for the things of this world to be brought nearer to the ways of God. Or as we put it when we pray those familiar words from the Lord’s Prayer - “Thy Kingdom come”. And so how appropriate that “Thy Kingdom Come” is the title of the wave of prayer we are urged to join in with which once again starts on Ascension Day until the feast of Pentecost. (For resources and ideas see www.thykingdomcome.global.)
Come Holy Spirit
Spirit poured out
on the Pentecost Church
giving it power
for its missionary task,
come in our day
and touch us with fire
to make Jesus known
in a secularized world.
…..they returned to the city ‘with great joy and were continually in the temple blessing God’.