04 June 2011

Ascension Day

I find Ascension Day a bit of a strange holiday for a number of reasons.

The first reason has to do with what to do on the day. Here in the Netherlands, people get the Thursday (and sometimes the Friday) off work. Back in North America, the most I'd nomally do to celebrate the day was go to a combined church service. In the past couple of years I've gone on a pilgrimage with the community. But now I've just returned from Canada, am not entirely into the dutch rhythm of things, and I'm only joining the community's pilgrimage for one day. So what do I do? Do I treat the day as an extra day to get work done or as an extra day of rest? I still don't know and am hoping to reflect more on this (although maybe next year I'll be again on pilgrimage or visiting again - and the question will be answered for me!)

The second has to do with what is actually celebrated on Ascension Day. It seems strange to celebrate Jesus' leaving earth. I can't help but picture the disciples confusedly staring into the sky after Jesus left. They'd been through so much - the crazy, overwhelming week in Jerusalem with all the tension when Jesus was finally captured, tried, crucified and buried. Then two days of shock. And then Jesus rose again! Their whole world was turned upside down (several times). So when Jesus says to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the Spirit, I can't imagine they really understood what he meant. The book of Acts notes that they once again asked if Jesus was finally going to bring about the Kingdom now. It doesn't sound like they really grasped what was going on: Jesus really wasn't going to be among them anymore and their world would be turned upside down again and again in the coming years.

It seems strange to celebrate Jesus' absence and the disciples' confusion - although seeing the disciples' confusion is somewhat comforting (After all, if they spent 3 years with Jesus and saw all this happening and still were confused, it's not all that surprising that I get confused about Christianity sometimes!!!). And so perhaps it's better to think about Ascension Day not in terms of the disciples who were left confusedly waiting, but instead about Jesus' returning home to glory. I tend to forget this part of the story, as the book of Acts doesn't tell what happened when Jesus returned to heaven after triumphantly conquering death and saving humankind. In this way, the Nicene Creed captures it better:
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
Jesus' leaving on Ascension Day reminds me that the story of the church and Christianity isn't simply about those of us in the church. We are, after all, the ones perpetually standing around confused. Instead, it's about the kingdom coming - it began with Jesus' first coming to earth, continued with his death and resurrection, and then with his Ascension. The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost furthers the Kingdom that will be brought into fullness when Christ returns again to judge the living and the dead.

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