Sunday 21 May 2023
Year A: 7th Sunday of Easter
Liturgical colour: White
- Acts 1:6-14
- Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
- 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11
- John 17:1-11
The Feast of the Ascension is one of the nine principal feasts observed by the Church of England. It occurs forty days after Easter and so is always on a Thursday, but the events are also remembered on this, the following Sunday. They are recorded in the reading from Acts, which is usually included as one of the lessons. They also appear in the Gospel of Luke (24.51) and are referred to frequently throughout the New Testament.
The Feast of the Ascension celebrates Christ’s entering heaven in glory in both divine and human nature, thereby completing salvation, as rehearsed in the creeds we say together every week. Liturgies for Ascension often include the extinguishing of the paschal candle to mark this completion.
Christian art, like this Ascension of Christ 1636 painting by Rembrandt, often depicts Jesus literally being taken up into the sky as he blesses figures thought to represent the church below. That may seem a little naïve to us today. It certainly reflects pre-scientific understandings of what we now call the universe. It also mirrors accounts of other ascension stories of important figures like emperors, which were common at the time.
Our gospel reading offers a different perspective. Here we see familial closeness alongside cosmic reordering.
John records Jesus’ prayer to his father at the end of the last supper. He has been talking to the disciples about how he is the way to the Father, and urging his followers to ‘abide’ in him, as branches remain part of a life-giving vine. He tells them that God will send the Holy Spirit to remind them of the things he has taught them. Then in this passage, he turns from earth to heaven in prayer for the disciples; for protection and that they may be one with him as he is one with the Father.
Otherness of, yet intimacy with God is one of the many paradoxes of our faith. It is so easy to slip into one way of looking at things or the other. Perhaps thinking that God is so big that we are of no consequence and he wouldn’t be bothered with us. Or on the other hand, thinking that God is somehow at our beck and call, and will answer our prayers precisely even though our vision is limited and often self-serving.
Holding together two different views can lead to confusion. It can even lead to conflict, because as humans we so often strive for a certainty and security that is simply not available to us.
We are reminded today that we can grasp something of the divine awesomeness of God in the grand sweep of scripture, in creation and perhaps even in recognising how little we know. And we can know the humanity of God through the gospel accounts of Jesus, and find healing and our own calling through his compassion, wisdom and way of being.
We are blessed in that whatever our views, we can at any moment be one with God by turning our thoughts upward or inward in prayer.
 To find out more about feasts and festivals go to: churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/churchs-year/rules