Ascension: God is gone up with a shout!

Ascension Sunday

Vivian Lewin, Spiritual Director in the Diocese of Montreal

In the very early days of the church, the earliest days, Easter … the celebration of the Resurrection… lasted for 50 days. During this whole season, there was no fasting and no kneeling at the corporate prayers, according to Dom Gregory Dix (note 1).  While later on, with the circulation of the gospels, the church developed a sense of the history of the disciples being accompanied by their resurrected Lord, at that point, the Ascension was originally an integral part of the resurrection and was not observed as a separate event much less 40 days later.  “Risen, Ascended, Glorified” in one fell swoop, so to speak.  We will sing those very words in the hymn that follows communion.

For the newly baptised and for the whole church, which understood itself as the Body of Christ, the 50 days mirrored Israel’s “coming in to the land” after the exile and slavery in Egypt.  This was not simply a return, but a great season of rejoicing in an utterly new dispensation, when a spiritual reality had become an earthly one.

In my own faith journey, back when I was on the brink of becoming a believer, my main difficulty was with Jesus’ death.  All my Christian friends seemed so accepting of it, while I found it … a problem. Since then, I’ve come to some kind of understanding, if not total comprehension, and I thought I had come to some useful notions about the resurrection, too.  But this week  I found myself boggling at the traditional icons that show the disciples gaping upwards to see Jesus’ little feet the only visible part of him as he is hauled up into a thick cloud of obscurity (note 2). And I have to confess that I find this version of the Ascension somewhat daunting.  Almost unbelievable.

I mean, Resurrection was hard enough to grasp. Dead people are supposed to stay dead, right?  And once Jesus begins walking again with his disciples, the appearances are sometimes spooky (“Don’t touch me.” John 20:17) and sometimes entirely corporeal (“Come and have breakfast.” John 21:23). Inconsistent.  Some see him and some don’t. And now—Ascension.  Isn’t it just AWFUL of him to take off again?

Now, this kind of literalism, if taken at face value, can certainly freak us out. Diana Butler Bass (note 3) recently wrote,  “I’m tired of flying Jesus!”.  Surely the resurrected life that Jesus offers, the life that fills us as a church, is not some kind of cargo cult Christianity – we are not going through motions we don’t understand hoping for something wonderful to come to us in the future.  I hope you can agree that our lives right now are cherished by and being transformed by God.  The graces that we are being offered are real.  (There’s a hymn that starts with the words “New every morning is the love our waking and uprising prove.”)

All this means to say that the Ascension, however mysterious it seems to be, has to be an integral part of the Good News.  Jesus has predicted that he will go away (“In a little while you will not see me.” John 16:16)  He has in fact also promised that this must be in order for the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, to come, and we will celebrate that event, Pentecost (the 50th day) next Sunday (because Ascension Day, while we are observing it today together, was actually on the 40th day after Easter, i.e. this past Thursday.

I decided that here I would tell you… read to you…  what Dom Gregory Dix wrote about Ascension here, because, unlike me, he has carefully studied the writings of the Church fathers:  “The Resurrection is not Jesus’ survival of death… it is the reversal of his death.  The Divine acceptance of Calvary [that is, of the Cross] is in Easter and Ascension, and in what follows from them in the World to come.  For the latter [the world to come], we have only picture-language—the ‘entering in’ of the eternal High-priest to the heavenly altar; the bestowal of the crown and dominion of the everlasting kingdom; the ‘coming’ of one like unto the son of man upon the clouds of heaven to the Ancient of Days. These and other scriptural pictures”, Dix continues, “are so many attempts to represent the real entrance of the temporal into the eternal, which is just as much a consequence of the incarnation as the irruption of the eternal into time.  There is about them all a ‘once-for-all’ quality in consequence of which there is (paradoxically) something new but permanent in eternity, just as there is something new but enduring in time.  It is the double and mutual repercussion of time and eternity upon each other in that act of God which is the redemption of the world by Jesus of Nazareth, that is the essence of primitive Christianity.

Isn’t this, well, dizzying?

Then, Dix concludes by saying: “And of this the supreme expression from the beginning is the eucharist.”  (note 5).

I’m probably oversimplifying to the point of error, here, but in my own words, the logic runs something like this:

When Jesus came in human flesh, our human flesh was revealed to be the dwelling place for God that it was indeed created to be. Jesus modelled this in word and action during the years of his public ministry.  Luke quotes Saint Paul (in Acts 17:28) as preaching that God  is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’

The Resurrection is, of course, an integral part of this revelation, but so is the Ascension because it shows Jesus returning to the glory of which he… and we… were created to be part.

So to the extent that we share in him… which is small (but we do have the capacity, for instance when we can ask ourselves “what would Jesus do?”) he brings us with him in this transformation.

Hence the choice of Psalm 47 this morning… which we will also hear as a communion anthem. “Clap your hands, all you peoples… the princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham.”  We would do well to lean into this language, as hard as it seems to us today, long enough to consider that the princes are now gathering “as the people” and the people are the people of all the nations on earth.  This seems to imply the end of hierarchy, no?  This is the kingdom of God, not any earthly kingdom.  In the words of a song from Taizé, “The Kingdom of God is Justice, and Peace, and Joy in the Holy Spirit” (see… Pentecost is the coming attraction here) and the song continues, Come, Lord, and open in us the gates of your kingdom.  The gates are in us.  We ARE already the people of God.  When you receive communion, when some of us later on join with the Environmental and Social Justice Action Group to consider what we can do advance justice and peace in our own community and world, we are moving towards the reality of the Ascension of Our Lord.

And not in a triumphal or colonialist way, either.  It would be wrong in fact to pretend that we know what this is going to look like.  I want to quote Diana Butler Bass again who reminds us that “Practicing resurrection sometimes means letting go — not only of what we expect but even of our capacity to understand the mysteries of the divine. The end of Easter isn’t certainty. Rather, the journey of practicing resurrection invites us to not know.”

Thanks be to God.


The readings for Ascension, observed on Sunday May 21, 2023, are Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47, Ephesians 1:15-23 and Luke 24:44-53.

1.    Dom Gregory Dix THE SHAPE OF THE LITURGY (Second edition). New York, Seabury Press, 1983. p. 340.  I see that a new edition with additional scholarly material from many sources appeared in 2015 (Bloomsbury).
2.    Painting shown is by the Master of Vyšší Brod (also known as the Master of Hohenfurth, from the German name for the town of Vyšší Brod) an anonymous Bohemian painter active around 1350. See further discussion of different kinds of imagery of the Ascension in the Visual Commentary on Scripture Images at this site may not be reproduced; however the image that accompanies this sermon on the Cathedral website is obtained from Wikimedia Foundation under clear terms of free use; the attribution is Narodni galerie v Praze. Details here
3.    Diana Butler Bass, Sunday Musings, May 21, 2023.
4.    Lyrics by John Keble.
5.    Dix again, pp 747-748.

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