The Preacher’s Study
The Ascension of the Lord
John W.B. Hill
Psalm 47 or Psalm 93;
The exaltation of Jesus “to God’s right hand”, and the outpouring of the Spirit upon his followers are both essential parts of the paschal mystery. But only the Acts of the Apostles assigns these particular elements of the gospel to particular days, following the day of resurrection. Paul makes no temporal distinction amongst them, and John’s version of the gospel assigns both Jesus’ ascent to the Father and his gift of the Holy Spirit to Easter Day itself.
However the chronology of Acts has been so illuminating that it has shaped the Church’s calendar for most of church history. It has helped us to recognize that Jesus’ resurrection, his exaltation, and our participation in his Spirit are not synonymous! They are not just three metaphors for the same reality (even though they are integrally related); their meaning cannot be reduced to ‘the enduring influence of Jesus of Nazareth.’ That is not the gospel; for Jesus is risen, and Jesus is Lord, and the Spirit of Jesus is “his own first gift for those who believe.”
This, together with Luke’s insistence that the events of this gospel can only be understood as the fulfilment of “the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms” (Luke 24:44), was especially important for Gentile believers who might have been tempted to interpret the good news of ‘Jesus and the Resurrection’ (Acts 17:18) through a Greek or pagan lens. It is just as important today for believers who might be tempted to interpret the gospel through a “new age” lens.
What, then, is the significance of the fortieth day (Ascension Day)? Pentecost (meaning ‘fiftieth’) was originally the fiftieth day after Passover, a day to celebrate the gift of the Law through Moses, and thus also an appropriate day for followers of Jesus to celebrate the gift of the Spirit. So too, the fortieth day might evoke the memory of Israel’s forty years in the wilderness, that interlude between two epochs: their subjugation in Egypt, and their settlement in the Promised Land.
Thus, in the book of Acts, the forty days are the interlude between the time the disciples spent with Jesus until his arrest and crucifixion, and the beginning of their apostolate. During this interlude, Jesus “presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the Kingdom of God”.
Today, people who respond to the good news of Jesus and the Resurrection by accepting baptism also need the benefit of such an interlude, a time to be guided toward a fuller recognition of their calling. They need to be grounded in the mystery of Christ “seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but in the age to come” (Ephesians 1:20-21). As a medieval hymn observes, “angels wonder when they see how changed is our humanity” (O Lord Most High, Eternal King). For his dignity is now our dignity, too.
Thus, as the second reading spells out, we are being given “a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with your eyes enlightened, you may know the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe” (Ephesians 1:17-19). In short, we are inheritors of the Kingdom of God.
At the same time, we need to be grounded in the humble spirit of trusting agnosticism, confident in the one essential role we must play in the coming of that kingdom: “It is not for you to know the times or the periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses...” (Acts 1:7-8).
This is the primary vocation of the baptized: put simply, to be the witnesses to what God has done through his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord! This is what Jesus had consistently taught, before his death: “you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify! So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict” (Luke 21:12-15). “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send you from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me...” (John 15:26-27).
Such inspired testimony is no guarantee that those who oppose us will be convinced by our witness, or that the charges brought against us will be dropped! Rather, our witness is simply God’s way of convicting the world of sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8). The followers of Jesus conquered their accuser “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death” (Revelation 12:10-11).
John W. B. Hill, an Anglican presbyter living in Toronto, Canada, is a Council member of APLM, chair of Liturgy Canada, and author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice. He will be one of the featured speakers at this summer’s conference co-sponsored by APLM and Journey to Baptismal Living: NAAC https://journeytobaptism.org/
“Ascension,” “Baptism,” and “The Apostles,” by Ivan Filichev.