Today it’s ‘Hemelvaart’ here in Flanders, which is just a very welcome Thursday off for most people (or almost half a week even, since a lot of people get the following Friday too as a ‘bridge day’ and have a super-long weekend). Few people ever think about it being a Catholic holiday, and about the story of the ascension that it’s based on. As far as I’m aware most Christian don’t even do much with it, except for not working, and the occasional first communion feast.
I don’t know if the Catholics actually are supposed to go to some special mass on ascension day although I suppose it’s part of their liturgical calendar, but growing up in Pentecostal and Charismatic churches I can’t really recall anything religious happening at all on this day. It always was just a mysterious day off.
When you really think about the actual story it gets even weirder. Just look at the Gebhard Fugel painting, and try to imagine what has happened in the story. There is something mysterious and very non-modern about the whole ascension story, and the way it fits in the whole narrative of the end of Jesus’s life and beyond as it is celebrated in the movable feasts of spring in the liturgical calendar: Palm Sunday is understandable with Jesus entering Jerusalem on His donkey, and the stories of the last supper, the crucifixion, resurrection and even Pentecost are too foundational to miss.
But the ascension is just a weird day squeezed in between the resurrection and Pentecost, with a strange story that doesn’t fit in our worldview at all, even for moderns who can accept the whole idea for resurrection disappearing upwards to the clouds is a strange thing. Heaven is not somewhere upwards in the sky or even in space (as Gagarin once seems to have confirmed) but in a completely different dimension. So why is Jesus disappearing like that? What does the story even mean? Did it literally happen? Is it a weird parable? Luke seems to treat it as something that actually happen, at least to me. Let’s have a look at the story, which is quite short and can be found in the first chapter of the book of Acts. I use the NT Wright translation ‘New Testament for Everyone’ here:
3 After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. 4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. 10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
One important thing to note here are the words of Christ in the story. In a way this is just a prologue to the actual beginning of the church in chapter 2 with the day of Pentecost, when the promised baptism with the Holy Spirit occurs after a time for prayer with the apostles together. It seems that without the ascension in which the Incarnate Jesus (who can as a human be just at one place at a time) disappears from our world the new gift of the Holy Spirit to the church cannot happen. At least that’s what I’ve heard in sermons several times in my life.
I don’t know if I am really understanding the whole significance of the story at this point in my faith journey, but the fact alone that today is ascension day is a good day to meditate on the whole thing, and on the last words of Christ here, which have always had a lot of significance for me. In the Charismatic church the emphasis always was on ‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you’, and some missionaries I’ve heard preaching about these verses emphasised the part of “being my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” For me personally the first part about not knowing the time was reassuring when I was younger, and when there still were a lot of weird end-times obsessed people around me who seemed to be quite sure they did know all kind of dates on which things would happen that never happened anyway. It helped me to see they were not as ‘biblical’ as they claimed.
It’s probably because I found all parts of these last words equally important that I once turned them into a song. ‘Last words to the first church’ was one of the songs I played live several times with the ‘Contemporary Christian Muzak Collective’ 20 years ago or so, and which also ended up on the album of that name years later when I finally finished some songs on my harddisk. It actually was the first song I recorded with multitrack on a computer, long before the other CCM songs, using guitar-loops, a melodica, and weird noises made on a guitar with a contrabass bow. (hear the original here)
It remained a favourite over the years, and it was also one of the songs I redid on my new experimental youtube music channel when I tried to find a new live sound with loopstation and pocket operators (the melodica is still there though!).
I know this post doesn’t have much answers and more questions, so if you have anything about the day of the ascension please tell me, and for now I leave you with the 2021 version of ‘Last Words to the first Church’, live in my bedroom on a very messy desk indeed.
Maybe taking a time of prayer for more guidance of the Holy Spirit isn’t a bad idea though.
what do you people think?