I first noticed there was something different when some pupils from my school would be allowed officially to skive off to church on what was for me just another day in the week. I was told, sometimes in a rather furtive way that it was the Catholics who did this; so not for the likes of me – just a Baptist boy.
Jesus ascending to heaven by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815)/Wikimedia Commons
Later I would discover it was Ascension Day. I wasn’t exactly too aware of the Church year in my upbringing but from all that I got a sort of double message.
Ascension Day was not like Easter Day because it was not a Sunday, but it was special enough to take you away from school! So there must have been something to it. Apparently there is evidence to suggest that it is the earliest Christian festival dating back to within three decades of Jesus.
It is now concludes Rogation tide, a time of prayer and discipline in which the blessings of God are sought not only for a good harvest but a fruitful life in anticipation of the celebration of Pentecost. As if Lent were not enough off we go again through another 40 days and nights of devotional discipline.
Whilst for many Christians this provides a helpful pattern for discipleship, for others it is just too legalistic and they find that the structure of the Church Year is too contrived. For them all the seasons of Jesus are celebrated in every act of Christian worship and one shouldn't be too picky – we live in a post-Pentecost era at all times of the year.
But as there is a Church Year to be followed then I, for one, have come to regret the absence of an Ascension Sunday, although it is possible to use the following Sunday to reflect on the importance of the ascension of Jesus.
For its importance cannot be denied. It does not surprise me that it might have been one of the earliest Christian ‘holy days’. For it sets Christ apart. He is up there beyond the emperors and the gods of empire.
Within just a few years of the lifetime of Jesus Paul had seen through the resurrection to the glory of the One who has been ‘seated at the right hand of the Father of glory far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and has all things under his feet’.
The fashions of recent years have negatively criticised Paul for his lack of acknowledgement of the life work of Jesus. But this can miss his point. Jesus is the Christ who has gone beyond one life time. His humanity has been lifted to the heights of the throne of God. And with his, so has ours.
Currently our prayer and spirituality seems to be dominated by the discovery of the God within. So the language of ‘up there’ and ‘out there’ can feel out of touch. Well let it be – because in Jesus God was doing more than giving us a bit of moral inspiration. God wasn’t just being relevant. He was laying down a foundation for lift-off. He was turning us toward the ascent we can make into heights of who we are in Christ.
It might be helpful to portray Jesus as the person in whom God who got down and dirty, but that’s not his natural habitat anymore than it is ours.
Ascension is the time to celebrate the outer reaches of our human understanding of Christ and ponder how we may go beyond the particularity of his Incarnation. Is he forever, the risen Palestinian Jew?
In his time Jesus challenged the powers and authorities of state and religion. It is the Ascension that lifts him out of that cultural setting and through his Spirit drops him into the same challenges of our own time. The Ascending Christ is the Lord and Giver of Life whose Spirit calls his disciples to have no Caesar but God.
The Ascension initiates the pathway of dissent and non-conformity which is the birth-right of all Christians and along which the first Christian martyrs trod within those early decades of the post-Pentecost era.
Thus I argue that of all Christian holy-days it is the Ascension that should inspire Baptists. It is our Maundy Thursday; the day when we turn out for church on a day other than Sunday. It provides the spiritual starting point for Dissent. It is the justification for the cry ‘not in our name’.
So thank you Catholic Christians for keeping the tradition, and may some other Christians, especially those who are proud of their non-conformity, join you.