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The Forgotten Festival6 months ago
Kevin Roberts helps us to think about how the ascended Jesus interacts with the pain and suffering of the world today
Ascension Day has to be the forgotten Festival in the Christian Year.
The ten days of ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ between Ascension and Pentecost have started to put Ascension Day back on the map, but for many people, even in the churches, Ascension Day passes by unnoticed and unmarked. We rush from the heights of Easter Sunday to the delights of Pentecost Sunday, with hardly a nod in the direction of the event that brought the risen Lord Jesus to a place from which, with his heavenly Father, He could pour out the Spirit and bring the church into being.
Not so the writers of the New Testament.
For Luke the ascension is the climactic end point of his gospel and the tantalising starting point of the Acts of the Apostles. When Peter speaks on the Day of Pentcost it is the ascension not the resurrection that is the high water mark of the Jesus story. And in Paul’s great hymn in Philippians 2 he moves straight from Jesus’ “obedience to death on a cross”, to “God exalting him to the highest place and giving Him the name that is above every name”. And, as we shall see, the writer to the Hebrews has often got the ascended Jesus in his sights.
So why do we give Ascension Day such short shrift?
Well, forty days after the resurrection lands us on a Thursday, which doesn’t help. I can remember when that meant an extra day off school, but alas no longer kids, and we can miss Ascension Day in the blur of weekdays between one Sunday and the next. And maybe we can’t easily get our minds around an ascending Jesus, not helped by those dusty old paintings of Jesus rising rocket-like, his legs dangling beneath the clouds. Or more theologically, do we struggle with the idea of a departing Jesus, a Jesus who was once so evidently ‘God with Us’ in the incarnation, now apparently ‘God no longer with Us’, leaving behind the world and its pain and struggles.
It is this last point that I want to pause on for a few moments.
What is the relationship between Jesus, “exalted to the right hand of God” (Acts 2:33) and a world in which there is untold suffering and anguish? Indeed, putting it more pointedly, how can the message of a Jesus ascended above the mess and mire of a world in the grip of a virulent pandemic, begin to help us when we cast our eyes around a ravaged landscape of death and bereavement and fear and emotional anxiety? With no disrespect to the Queen, who has understandable gone into a self-imposed isolation during the pandemic, has King Jesus retreated to safer heavenly ground, where the realities of death, and mourning and crying and pain are at best a distant memory?
So how does the ascended Jesus relate to a world ravaged by the coronavirus?
Well, firstly by feeling for it with an empathy that comes from sharing our human experience and story first hand in his own earthly journey. This is where the writer to the Hebrews nails it so powerfully and succinctly (4:14-16). The ascended Jesus understands us because he has been in our skin. He is sympathetic to our weaknesses. He has been tempted in every way, just as we are. He was, as Isaiah so accurately predicted, “a man of suffering, familiar with pain” (53:3) . All of which means that we can approach him with an absolute confidence that he knows what the worst of life is like from the inside, and that he can dispense mercy and grace and all that we need with intimate compassion and with tender precision.
But, secondly, the ascended Jesus not only feels the pain of the world, but intercedes for us before the Father (Romans 8:34), in a shared intercessory work with the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:26,27). I think this is such a great reminder, especially for those who are struggling to pray during these difficult days, that intercession is part of the language of the Trinity, continuously flowing from the Son and the Spirit to the Father, and all focussed on the people and the pain of the world. Mercifully, it goes on whether we can pray or not.
And if God needed any reminder of just how tough human life can be, the triune Persons need only look at the hands and feet, the head and the side of the ascended Jesus, who carried with him into the godhead not only human flesh, but the scars of the cross. In a very real sense Jesus didn’t leave us when he ascended, but rather he took us with him, so that human flesh and human pain are within the life of the godhead itself. Charles Wesley puts it brilliantly: “Those dear tokens of his passion still his dazzling body bears; cause of endless exultation to his ransomed worshippers; with what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture, gaze we on those glorious scars.” And the divine Persons gaze too, and are reminded, and pour out their love on a hurting world.
And a final thought points us forward to Pentecost, because not only does the ascended Jesus feel the pain of the world, and intercede ceaselessly for it, but with the Father he sends the Holy Spirit to continue his work, still incarnate in human lives, and now available to all people in all places and, therefore, able to do “even greater things” because Jesus has returned to the Father (John 14:12). So definitely not a retreat! The ascension marks a new advance! What was begun by Jesus is continued by the Spirit, who enlists a Church, so that the Kingdom that Jesus began to establish can grow, and the new creation that began in a tomb outside the city walls might one Day be complete in a new heaven and a new earth.
In all the suffering of our world today, in plain view and hidden in locked-down lives, the ascended Jesus shares our pain; “always lives to intercede” for us (Hebrews 7:25); and is mighty to help and to heal.
So, plenty to ponder, on…….when was that Day again?