In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
On every Sunday and major feast we proclaim the doctrine that Jesus ascended into heaven. Compared to other teachings about Jesus’ life and ministry, however, we tend not to give the Ascension the attention it deserves. Until the fourth century it didn’t even have its own feast day. Since then observance of this feast has been sporadic—and in some cases downright odd—especially in our branch of the Church, which prefers its doctrines to be as rational as possible.
We know why Our Lord ascended into heaven: we observe in the Book of Genesis [5:24] that when Patriarch Enoch reached the venerable age of 365 years, angels carried him into heaven to dwell with God; we read in the Second Book of Kings [2:12-14] that a chariot of fire pulled the Prophet Elijah into a whirlwind that conveyed him up to the sky.
For the evangelist Luke, Jesus’ ascension is the culmination of God’s saving work, woven into the fabric of creation, attested by patriarchs and prophets and sealed by our Lord’s incarnation, death and resurrection. Jesus’ ascension makes way for the Holy Spirit to infuse God’s people with such grace that they become Christ’s body on earth, fully empowered to help usher in the kingdom of God. It is a beautiful, powerful teaching that deserves our commemoration, contemplation and adoration.
We can see clearly why the ascension is a vital, defining doctrine of our faith. For many of us, however, the stumbling block isn’t why but how. Since at least the eleventh century our religious life has been shaped by theologians like Anselm, Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, all of whom insist that our faith must be reasonable. God did not make a chaotic, incomprehensible world, they assert; rather, God made a world in which every wonder is an invitation to witness and explore God’s grace in action. Theological mystery becomes a vehicle for entering the divine mind and discerning, to an almost scientific degree, God’s purpose for us in this mortal world.
The mysteries of incarnation and resurrection challenge us, of course; yet we have all seen some form of new life spring out of dark barren places. Indeed, our reliance on God’s power over death fuels our faith and sustains our hope. But in both of these cases the mystery occurred privately with no witnesses to tell us what actually happened. Jesus’ ascension, by contrast, was a very public affair. Lots of people saw it, apparently, and, they found it quite amazing. We, standing in Anselm’s tradition of “faith seeking understanding,” may well find certain details of ascension in our biblical record rather dubious. Where are these chosen patriarchs and prophets actually going? Why up? What exactly is up there? Must we affirm a doctrine with no physical evidence to support it? If not, what is the proper way to interpret these critical texts metaphorically. If so, how do we make sense of bible passages that seem to pit theological truth against observable fact?
Perhaps these difficult questions account at least for some of the peculiar ways we have observed the Feast of the Ascension down through the centuries. I cite two examples from one of my favorite books, The Oxford Companion to the Year:
- First, there is a very old custom of collecting rain water on Ascension Day for healing, especially diseases of the eye
- Second, a seventeenth-century treatise reports that students at New College, Oxford, for “time out mind” visited St. Bartholomew’s Hospital on Ascension Day morning, where they offered prayers, sang songs, and processed to the chapel on a path “strewn with flowers”
Now for some contemporary examples: I once served a congregation that hosted a strawberry shortcake reception immediately following the Ascension Day liturgy; no one knew quite why they did this, or how it related to the doctrine of the ascension, but it was a lovely custom nonetheless. And here today we honor the ascension with the glorious offering of Herbert Howell’s English Mass!
For me, though, the most profound and authentic way that I have ever experienced the Feast of the Ascension was at St. Andrew’s Church in Wellesley, where every year the Altar Guild gathers to commission new members and appoint new officers in a Eucharistic celebration. At the Offertory, the celebrant recites the necrology of the people who have served on the Altar Guild since the founding of the parish over one hundred years ago. By now the list of names is quite long, but no one seems to mind the time it takes to read them. Of all people, these quiet ministers of the Gospel know the abiding value of being Christ’s body on earth; of preparing his table; of helping to serve the friends he calls to the feast; of attending to the messiness of sharing bread and wine—body and blood—with fellow disciples who desperately need God’s forgiveness, encouragement and abundant love. Of all people, they understand the connection between a concrete faith rooted in the here and now, and the promise of eternal life with our risen Lord.
So, in honor of these precursors who have faithfully sought to observe the occasion of Jesus’ ascension, if when they couldn’t quite grasp its meaning, I invite to you mark this feast with exuberant celebration. Give great thanks for the mystery that Jesus rose to heaven so that we might fulfill our calling as his agents of healing and reconciliation on earth. And pray with me this ancient prayer from the Mozarabic Sacramentary, written in a time when making rational sense of profound truth was not at the top of the list of theological virtues:
“Who shall speak of Thy power, O Lord, and who shall be able to tell the tale of all Thy praises? Thou didst descend to human things, not leaving behind heavenly things. Thou art returned to things above, not abandoning things below. Everywhere Thou art Thy whole self, everywhere wonderful. In the flesh, Thou hast yet thy being with the Father; in thine Ascension Thou art not torn away from Thy being in man. Look upon the prayer of Thy people, holy Lord, merciful God; that in Thy holy Ascension, even as glory is given to Thee on high, so grace may be vouchsafed to us below.”
 Notes and Queries, 1st ser., ix (1854), 524 cited in The Oxford Companion to the Year, Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens (Oxford, 1999), 630.
 John Gadbury, EFHMERIS or, a Diary Astronomical, Astrological, Meteorological for the Year of our Lord 1696 (London, 1696) cited in ibid.
 The New Book of Christian Prayers, Tony Castle (New York: Crossword Publishing, 1977), 204.