St Albans and Welwyn Methodist Circuit

Ascension Day

Forty days after Easter Day comes Ascension Day when we remember the last day Jesus was seen by his disciples.  Ascension Day is the sixth Thursday after Easter. We do not know when this Festival, for which the Liturgical colours are as Easter (White or Gold), began but there are accounts of it going back to the 4th Century.

The NT passages that refer to the Ascension include Matthew 18 v 16-20; Mark 16 v 19-20; Luke 24 v 44-53, and Acts 1 v 1-11,  John 16 v 1-11,  Ephesians 1 v 15-23, Ephesians 4 v 1-13, Hebrews 4 v 14.

The Gospel evidence differs. Luke has the Ascension as a distinct event and the others approach it differently. There is no sense in trying to harmonise these accounts. It can be said that the Ascension is a distinctively Lucan event. However in the Old Testament Elijah is said to have ascended into heaven: 2 Kings 2 v 1-15.

The Ascension is there in the great Christian creeds. It is an important Christian doctrine. It has been said that this doctrine is the most political of all the doctrines of the NT. Why is this? It proclaims that Jesus has final authority and dominion. It calls us to live in the will of Jesus Christ and that can sometimes bring us into direct conflict with the will of a government. Illustrations of this include the witness of many Christians in South Africa before the end of apartheid regime, the Confessing Church in Germany at the time of Hitler in the 1930s and 1940s, and Martin Luther King in the USA in the 1960s. [1]

The Ascension of Jesus also leads to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the enabling of the church’s mission under God, as John’s gospel clearly indicates. Luke’s writings make the point that the end is but a beginning. The ascension of Jesus makes possible the coming of the Holy Spirit in a new way. The Ascension signifies that just as heaven touched earth in the incarnation, so in the Ascension, Jesus has taken our humanity into the presence of God. Irenaeus said that Jesus became one of us so that we might share his divinity.  The work of Christ on earth was finished and he handed over his task to his followers.

John and Charles Wesley saw the connection between Ascension and the Eucharist and were influenced by the writings of Daniel Brevint who said that “now Christ has gone to heaven, He sends down on earth his graces that spring continually from his everlasting Sacrifice, and from the continual intercessions which attend it. ....the sacred body of Jesus fills with atonement and blessing the remotest parts of this temple”[2]

The Eucharist or Holy Communion indeed commemorates the death and resurrection of Jesus and it is a feast which rejoices in the outpouring of the Spirit, as witness the way in which the Holy Spirit is invoked in Eucharistic Prayers, where we are fed with the bread of heaven. It also reminds us that when we worship we are one with the company of heaven.

[1] Brian Haymes,  “Looking at Easter and Ascension”,  (Birmingham IBRA 1992) p 104

[2] Stevenson p 176