Ascension and the end of Eastertide
The feast of the Ascension has changed even during my lifetime. It used to happen on the Thursday of the sixth week after Easter, and it was a Holiday of Obligation; now the feast is often (in some countries always) transferred to the following Sunday. You could argue that this is to make it more important rather than less so, but you need to be sure what your church is planning before you commit to singing either the Ascension psalm (46/47), or the psalm for Seventh Sunday (26/27) because your parish celebrated the Ascension on Thursday. Both are up on the website. Whether you celebrate it on the Thursday or the Sunday, the Ascension is a great feast; but our emotions are mixed.
I wrote about the psalm for Ascension a couple of years ago, but I want to discuss it again, because it was only a brief discussion (and there aren’t any pictures in it). I still agree with what I said about the psalm and the First Reading. Psalm 46/47 is a brilliant triumphal psalm following the account of the Ascension, celebrating as the Lord returns to take his place at the Father’s right hand after his victory over sin and death. So huge rejoicing, trumpets and fireworks. The trumpets sound at every iteration of the Response, so the mood is of unalloyed jubilation.
It is all about the greatness of God and the joy at the return of the triumphant King (all your Tolkien bells should be ringing here). It’s difficult to imagine this psalm in a pre-Christian setting, but it’s worth trying : it must have been even more about earthly triumph and splendour, with the King taking charge of the Kingdom here on earth, as the apostles keep hopefully suggesting. But for us now the Lord has gone, and we are left ‘staring into the sky’, and wondering what to do next, – because we are still here.
Seeing someone off
It’s always hard when someone leaves. Even if you decide not to hang around at the station or airport, the moment when you finish waving to the traveller, turn and go, is always a downer. You have to start getting on with ordinary things (which may have been piling up in the interim), now that your guest/child/parent has gone; you may even need to change out of the person that you were (host/parent/child), into a different person who deals with the other aspects of your life. It’s much easier being the person who leaves; the emotions are less complicated.
They may be sad to go, but they also look forward to where they are going, especially if they are returning in triumph, as Jesus indubitably is. And while that person is there, obviously you concentrate on them and their feelings, you try to mirror their joy and excitement, leaving your feelings to be dealt with later.
After the Resurrection…
We can clearly see this happening in the First Reading, which is the same in all three years of the Liturgical Cycle, unlike some of the other readings. It’s the very beginning of Acts that we are given, rather than the near-ending of Mark or Luke, and this is significant in itself, because we’re moving to a new reality; starting again with a new narrative. The apostles have not been doing very much in the interim, everyone would have been exhausted as well as frightened; there is very little of the Gospels still to read after the death of Jesus and the hesitant attempts to put the Resurrection down in words that are faithful and can be understood.
…but before Pentecost
The men and women of Jesus’ inner circle are sad and terrified after the Crucifixion, and they spend most of their time huddled together in the Upper Room, trying not to draw attention to themselves. Then the news comes of the Resurrection (brought to them by the women, whose testimony they discount), but slowly they begin to allow themselves to be convinced, as Jesus comes in mysteriously through locked doors at meal times, and talks and eats with them, answering questions and encouraging them to touch him. They don’t seem to go out much, except when they have to (the women to wash the body, Mark 16, the couple who have to go to Emmaus, Luke 24, a fishing expedition for food and to pretend everything is normal, John 21).
Waiting to see the way ahead
Jesus has told them that although he is going away, someone else is coming, to comfort and strengthen them, and in Luke’s account (which precedes the doings in Acts), he specifically tells them to’stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high’ (24.49).
For his departure, he leads them out of Jerusalem, to a hill in Galilee near Bethany, where Martha, Mary and Lazarus lived, comfortingly familiar territory, and there he disappears gently from their sight. So they go back to Jerusalem, back to the Upper Room; and they wait.
Life in lockdown, before and after the Ascension
I could have written all that using the new vocabulary which has become so current, describing the apostles as self-isolating within their household, only socialising within their little group, only going out for essential travel and shopping for food, and it would have amounted to the same thing. For his Ascension, Jesus takes them out for a walk to a hill which is ‘within a Sabbath’s journey'(Acts 1.12) of the city, which makes it sound even more like a permitted exercise period. This year in particular the situation of the disciples sounds uncannily like our own. They are afraid, and so are we. They are trying to protect each other and avoid danger for any vulnerable members of the group, and so are we. They didn’t know what was going to happen next, and neither do we; but they had Jesus’ promise, and so do we.
Waiting for the Comforter
We know much more than they did about the coming of the Holy Spirit, because we know that Pentecost is just around the corner, and that after it, these timid people will be back in the Temple blessing God (Luke 24.53), and carrying out all the wonderful things which Jesus predicts of them in the last few verses of the synoptic Gospels. We still don’t know when we will be allowed back in our temples, and many families are in dire need of the Comforter, but we know he is on his way.