And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, the was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. (Acts 1:9)
Tucked away into a late spring Thursday, Ascension day is often missed. Gone are the days when it would be marked by a holiday, or children snaking from school to church. Christmas and Easter still attract public holidays and, until the mundanely titled Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971, so did Pentecost. But Ascension day? In many ways it’s been shuffled away, and even in the church we mainly mark the event on the following Sunday.
This is a real shame, since the Ascension marks the completion of Jesus’ earthly ministry. From our point of view, of course, it is the crucifixion and resurrection which make the biggest difference to us. It is these twin events which bring forgiveness of sins, a reconciliation to God and life eternal. The Ascension, though, answers the question: what next for Jesus?
In the book of Daniel, written centuries before all this, the prophet has a glimpse into the heavens. Here is what he saw:
I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)
At his trial, Jesus drew on this very imagery when he addressed the High Priest and said: “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 16:42). It is against this background that we can see what is happening at the Ascension. Jesus returns to heaven - with a cloud taking him out of the sight of the disciples - and receives a kingdom. Daniel’s prophecy is at that moment fulfilled, and Jesus takes up his reign. It is a mistake to think that Jesus’ ministry ended at the Ascension, rather it began a new phase. This is why when we say the Creed together, we say of Jesus:
“he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end”.
The Ascension reminds us that Jesus is not simply a figure from the past, but is also a present reality. It might be tucked away in the middle of a week, but it’s implications stretch through all our days. Christ is enthroned, and so it is we still benefit from his ongoing ministry.
As we sit in so many front rooms across the Benefice, perhaps we might join together to praise this Ascended King this day by humming through the words of the old hymn:
Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendour
first-begotten from the dead,
thou alone, our strong defender,
liftest up thy people's head.
Jesu, true and living bread.
Here our humblest homage pay we,
here in loving reverence bow;
here for faith's discernment pray we,
lest we fail to know thee now.
thou art here, we ask not how.
Though the lowliest form doth veil thee
as of old in Bethlehem,
here as there thine angels hail thee,
branch and flower of Jesse's stem.
we in worship join with them.
Paschal Lamb, thine offering, finished
once for all when thou wast slain,
in its fullness undiminished
shall for evermore remain,
cleansing souls from every stain.
Life-imparting heavenly manna,
stricken rock with streaming side,
heaven and earth with loud hosanna
worship thee, the Lamb who died,
risen, ascended, glorified!