Lectionary Reflection: Ascension Day (Thursday, May 9) or Ascension Sunday (Sunday, May 12)

Texts:  Acts 7:55-60; Rev 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-26

Today, May 9, is Ascension Day: the commemoration of Jesus ascending into heaven forty days after his resurrection (Acts 1:1-11). In some respects, it might seem strange to celebrate the departure of the risen Christ from this earth. Why is this a day of celebration for the church rather than a day of loss?

After Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples had forty days of joy, during which their incredulity and fear and doubt must have slowly transformed into the courage and confidence that enabled their costly witness and even martyrdom in the years to come.

The disciples had forty days of instruction, during which Jesus spoke to them about the kingdom of God. Imagine their chagrin when the One who opened these mysteries to them was taken away into heaven before their eyes.

In Acts, two angels chide the disciples for standing around and staring into the sky after Jesus’ ascension. Time to get their eyes back to earth – they have a mission to complete. And then they learn two important things about Jesus’ departure: he will come again (Acts 1:11; Rev 22:12, 20), and he has not left them alone.

Ten days after the risen Christ ascends to the right hand of God, as witnessed by the first martyr, Stephen (Acts 7:55), the Holy Spirit descends upon the apostles in wind and flame and miraculous empowerment on the day of Pentecost. In the Gospel of John, Jesus promises that when he leaves the disciples he will not leave them alone, but will give them the gift of the Comforter, the Encourager, the Advocate, the Exhorter – the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit continues to make the risen Christ present to the disciples, reminding them of his teaching and empowering them to fulfill the mission given to them by their Lord (Acts 1:8). Jesus had already assured his followers that they were one with him and with the Father, bound together by divine love (John 17:22-23); in his “absence,” the Spirit is the “bond of love” that not only binds the Trinity together (as Augustine wrote) but binds Christians to one another and assures them of the risen Christ’s ongoing presence with his church.

The reassurance that the risen Christ will return, ushering in the kingdom of God that his ministry, death, and resurrection inaugurated, does not mean the disciples sit around and wait until he comes back. When they ask Jesus if now (now, please!) is the time he’s going to restore the kingdom to Israel, Jesus gently reprimands them (“it is not for you to know”) and then promises them the empowering presence of the Spirit. And empower them the Spirit does; throughout the rest of Acts, the disciples heal, preach, gather in transformed communities, bring good news to the poor, and joyfully take the gospel to the ends of the earth. And although Christ himself, in his resurrected body, has departed the earth, they are never left alone. They live in the Spirit, and they trust that the risen Christ who ascended to the Father will return to earth – this time for good.

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