This month we celebrate three of the Church’s major festivals – Ascension Day, Pentecost and, right at the end of May, Trinity Sunday. The first two really bring the Easter story to its conclusion. On Ascension Day, all those marvellous encounters the disciples have had with their risen Lord, come to an end. He departs from them in bodily form, after promising that they will soon be ‘clothed in power from on high’, something which happens with spectacular force on the day of Pentecost.
From then on, the disciples are changed people. Inspired by Jesus’ appearances to them after Easter, and empowered by the gift of the Holy Spirit, they go out and change the world.
I’m always struck by the low-key way we Anglicans treat Ascension Day. It tends to be overshadowed by Easter a few weeks earlier, and Pentecost, which comes just over a week later. Maybe we’re even a little embarrassed by Luke’s description of how Jesus departs from this earth. Believing he was physically taken up into heaven in a cloud seems, to our modern way of thinking, rather naïve and simplistic. I rather enjoy the way the scene is often depicted in Eastern Orthodox art, though it makes me want to giggle too – there’s usually the group of eleven disciples gazing upwards and, right at the top of the picture, a bit of cloud with Jesus’ ankles and feet dangling down from it.
But the more you meditate on this story, the more meaning it has, and particularly for us in this day and age, when the Church sometimes seems to be suffering from a lack of confidence. When our faith is under attack from many sides, as it is at present, there is an understandable tendency for Christians to want to play safe – to gather together in our own places rather than engage with a world that can seem indifferent or even hostile.
One of the striking things about the Ascension story, though, is the state the disciples were in when they went down off the hill. Jesus has departed from them. How natural it would have been to feel bereft, even fearful about having to face life without him. Not a bit of it. They go down the hillside bursting with confidence and joy. Luke tells us they are then continuously in the temple praising God, and this despite the fact that Jerusalem had become a very dangerous place for the followers of Jesus. There’s such an exuberance and boldness about them, that they’re scarcely recognisable as the same people who were in a state of fear and trembling only a short time previously.
It’s this transformation – begun at Easter and completed at Pentecost – that is the most powerful testament to the reality of Christ’s resurrection, and the power of the Holy Spirit. And it’s part of the miracle of the whole thing, that ever since those events, Jesus’ followers have, in some mysterious way, been able to plug into the same power source as those first disciples. We too are able to know the risen Christ as a living presence in our lives; we too have received the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is conferred on us all when we are baptised.
We do have to admit, though, that some of us seem to live as though we have not been transformed and empowered by these experiences at all. Someone has said that what we need to do in order for the Church to survive and grow, is rediscover our confidence in the power of Holy Spirit. As it is, we tend to muddle along as though we’re unaware of this great energy source available to us. It reminds me of when we acquired our present car. I’d never driven a car with a sixth gear before, so I often forgot that it was there. If John happened to be in the passenger seat, our journeys would be punctuated by him hissing through clenched teeth (his usual form of communication anyway, when I’m driving): ‘Move into top gear’.
Perhaps we should take that as our Ascension-tide and Whitsun-tide motto. And how do we ‘move into top gear?’ The first disciples point the way. The first thing they do after Jesus’ ascension is come together to pray, so preparing themselves for the gift of the Holy Spirit which is nothing less than the power of God actively at work in us, giving us new life, energising us and changing us.
It has been said that the Christian faith has no proofs, only witnesses. But when you think about it, the two amount to the same thing. The truth of our faith is proved by the quality of our witness. Often at our Sunday morning service we say these words: ‘The Lord is here. His spirit is with us’. If we really know that to be true, then we too have what it takes to go out and change the world, or at any rate, our little bit of it.
Yours with love, Lilian