The Season of Ascension
Ascensiontide is the brief ‘season’ which actually is a part of the Great Fifty Days of Eastertide, which stretches from Easter Day through and including the Day of Pentecost (from the Greek meaning fiftieth day). This season is observed in the nine days from the feast of the Ascension leading up to the feast of the Day of Pentecost. Ascensiontide marks liturgically the accounts in Luke and Acts where the Apostles experience the last of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, as well as their waiting in prayer upon his promised gift of the Holy Spirit to empower and guide them in preaching and living the Gospel.
In these ten days, through Word and Sacrament, we celebrate the mystery of Jesus’ glorification in kairos, God’s eternal now, and the entry of human nature into God’s very being. We celebrate the eternal presence of the risen Christ before God “to make intercession for us” (Hebrews 7:25) in his exalted human nature—in promise of our own sanctification and glorification in him. As the SSJE Rule notes: “Father Benson taught us to look always to the glory of the ascended Christ and find the meaning of all we do in union with him” (SSJE Rule of Life, Chapter 24, The Mystery of Intercession). The season of Ascension calls us to this work.
Yet in these days, we also celebrate Jesus’ abiding presence with all believers now. As he promised “…remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Though we await still the Feast of Pentecost, the promised Spirit, the Advocate, is already with us “to guide you into all truth” (John 16:13) Thus in these days we are invited to contemplate the mystery of the Ascension through the lens of John’s Gospel, where Jesus both is ascending and the Spirit is already given by Jesus on the day of the resurrection. There, Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20:17). Similarly in one of the Johannine resurrection appearances, “…the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:20-22).
In the light of this understanding, we at SSJE do not follow the sometime-practice during of extinguishing the Paschal candle on Ascension Day, as we once did, because we recognize that the ascended Christ is already and always with us, and that the Spirit is always and already given to us.
In icons of the Ascension (see below), Jesus’ mother, Mary is usually present, shown praying in Orans position. She traditionally is not depicted as looking up, as the disciples are. This visual representation recalls the words of the two angels speak in Acts 1:11: “You men from Galilee, why do you stand looking up.” This emphasizes that this is not a literal event, but a way of understanding the change in Jesus’ presence with us.
Suggestions for Prayer and Practice
You might reread the accounts of Jesus’ Ascension recorded in the Scriptures: Luke 24:51; John 17:1-11; Acts 1:6-11. What stands out to you? What arises in you as you read these stories? Offer these observations to God in prayer.
You might find it meaningful during Ascension to pray in anticipation of Pentecost with the collect for the seventh Sunday of Easter: O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before. Where are you seeking comfort right now? Where do you need the strength of God?
You might also want to try praying with paintings or images of the Ascension, like the icon of the Ascension from Pskov-Perchersky Monastery, Russia. Notice how the center of gravity in this icon is the assembled gathering below. Even the ascended Christ’s right hand of blessing points us back downward to the gathered crowd. Pray with this icon, asking Christ to make himself known to you in it. Ponder your own place in the crowd of Christ’s faithful followers.
Praying the Questions
What must the followers of Jesus must have thought of God’s faithfulness during that strange, silent hinge between Ascension and Pentecost. Jesus has left them, again, promising a comfort that has not yet come. In Luke, we read that they returned to the upper room, a place where Jesus’ presence had been palpable and significant: the site of the last meal they ate before his death; where they hid after his execution; and where he had revealed himself to them after he had risen. They spend the wait between Ascension and Pentecost in a place of memories, recalling God’s former faithfulness to quiet the doubt and fear no doubt rising in them. What “upper room” can you enter in these days of waiting? What memories of God’s past faithfulness can draw you through today’s uncertainty?
Before he ascends in their sight, Jesus says to his followers: Stay here. Wait. Wait until you have been clothed with power. The days of waiting between Christ’s Ascension and Pentecost are about God’s waiting on us: notfor our ability but for our availability to receive the power Jesus intends for us, which will come at Pentecost. How is God waiting for you to say “Yes” to your life? What will open up the channel for God’s work within you and through you?
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