Materials for Worship on the Seventh Sunday of Easter

I did my curacy in Bradford on Avon, Peter writes, a lovely town in Wiltshire, about the same size as Dunblane. The church is on the river bank and behind it a steep slope rises to a little chapel called St Mary Torey. (The name has nothing to do with politics but is a West Country name for a high place.)

My children were in the choir and they used to look forward to Ascension Day. Early in the morning the choir would go up the tower and the rest of us would gather at St Mary Torey. The choir would sing “Hail the day that sees him rise” and, being on about the same level, the sound would waft over to us. Then we would go into the chapel for the Eucharist and the boys would go to the organist’s house for bacon rolls and hot chocolate. It was always a memorable occasion.

The effect of celebrating the Ascension this way depends on the ancient imagination of a three-decker universe, with heaven above, hell beneath and the earth in between. But that doesn’t mean that we can reject the Ascension as a piece of outdated cosmology. Let’s look more closely at what it is telling us.

Jesus is taken up into heaven. From the Lord’s Prayer we know that heaven is where God’s will is done and, conversely, where God’s will is done is heaven. To quote the late Pope Benedict XVI, “Earth becomes heaven when and insofar as God’s will is done there”. Taking this a stage further, in today’s reading from John’s Gospel, Jesus says to the Father, “I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do”. So if we want to know God’s will, we look at Jesus and by definition, where Jesus is, there is heaven. During his time on earth Jesus was always in one place at one time and his disciples could see and hear him. But after the Ascension, Jesus is no longer “there”. He has ascended to be with God and God is everywhere. So now, Jesus is everywhere too. In Matthew’s Gospel the Messiah is to be called “Emmanuel”, which means “God is with us”. In the same Gospel Jesus’ last words to the disciples are “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of time”.

Taken together, all this means that wherever and whenever we recognise a Christ-like activity in the world we are experiencing God’s will being done and that heaven is here on earth. To use traditional, metaphorical language, at such moments we “in heart and mind also ascend”.

There is more to the Ascension. In the Creed we say that Jesus now sits at God’s right hand. Now obviously, Jesus isn’t really sitting anywhere and God doesn’t have hands but this is how the ancient world spoke about someone who enjoyed the favour and authority of a king. So to talk about Jesus in this way was – and still is – a challenge to the powers that be, who seek to dominate through violence, oppression and injustice.

And lastly, the Ascension is about mission, our mission to be part of God’s dream for a world that is the opposite of Caesar’s world, where (to use Isaiah’s words) “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid … for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord”. All this is possible because at his ascension Jesus gave us a command: “Go into all the world” and also a promise: we shall not be left alone because at Pentecost we shall receive the power of the Holy Spirit.

And so, at the Ascension it is not just the earthly Jesus who is going to the Father. He draws us up to himself and make us capable of the lofty heights to which we are called.

For Prayer And Reflection

That the Church may be a messenger and witness to the world, in word, deed and prayer;

That the glory of the risen and ascended Lord may shine on those who acknowledge him and those who do not;

That all who exercise power may learn his way of justice, hospitality and mercy;

That we may be aware of where and when God’s will is being done and heaven is here amongst us;

That all who cannot see beyond the clouds of sorrow, sickness, pain or guilt may know his liberating mercy, forgiveness and healing;

That the Lord may receive in mercy the souls of the departed and that, with the saints, they may come to the vision of his glory.