ASCENSION DAY REFLECTION
ST JAMES' CHURCH, TROWBRIDGE AND ST LEONARD'S CHURCH, KEEVIL
This entire reflection, including listening to all the songs will probably take about 55 minutes.
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Today we celebrate the ascension of the risen Jesus into heaven where he sits at the right hand of the Father. But what does this event mean for us today? What does it mean for us that Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father and intercedes for us? Does it mean He is now distant and far off? Far from it! Let’s explore together the awesome reality that Jesus is now closer to us than we can imagine. We are going to read two accounts of the ascension of Jesus, one from Acts and one from Luke. Finally we will look at the story from the point of view of Mary Magdalene in John 20 to see what this may have to say to us today. As we go through we will listen to hymns and music to aid us in our time of reflection.
Let’s first begin with a prayer from the Church of England’s Common Worship service of daily prayer for Ascension Day as we invite God into our hearts and ask Him to speak to us today –
Blessed are you, Lord of heaven and earth,
to you be glory and praise for ever.
From the darkness of death you have raised your Christ
to the right hand of your majesty on high.
The pioneer of our faith, his passion accomplished,
has opened for us the way to heaven
and sends on us the promised Spirit.
May we be ready to follow the Way
and so be brought to the glory of his presence
where songs of triumph for ever sound:
Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Blessed be God for ever.
Common Worship: Daily Prayer, © Copyright The Archbishop’s Council 2005.
In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.”
Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Reflection: Here we see the risen Jesus telling His disciples what they were to expect now that He had returned to them raised from the dead. But it’s not necessarily what they were expecting to hear as we can gather from their question ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?’ Even after the events of the resurrection the disciples still did not grasp the full picture. They were still anticipating Jesus restoring the Kingdom to Israel, but Jesus had a much bigger, much wider, far more wonderful plan. He would bring in the Kingdom not just for Israel but for all. And the disciples had, and we today also have, a part to play. We are to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth. But we are not left to do this alone, we are promised the gift of power from on high, the Holy Spirit, to help us.
Song – Crown Him with Many Crowns
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
Reflection: Here we read that Jesus was taken up into heaven. It sounds quite sudden doesn’t it? If we had been there we may well have stood staring upwards, just as the disciples did, wondering whether we were now going to be left alone without Jesus’ help and guidance. But God sent two angels to reassure them, just as He reassures us, that Jesus would return.
Song – Alleluia, Sing to Jesus
While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.
Reflection: Here we see Luke recounting a part of the story which emphasises that Jesus returned after His resurrection not as a ghost but as fully alive. Jesus was at pains to prove this visibly to the disciples by showing them His wounds and by eating in front of them. Why was this so important? It was important because if Jesus was not really raised from the dead then He could not hold out this offer of resurrection life to us. Because He was truly raised to life we can take hold of the promise of eternal life through our faith in Him. And that eternal life will involve the material world. It is not just our spirits which will be be redeemed but our bodies too and all of creation. And we will eat and drink in the presence of God. What an amazing thing to look forward to!
Song – There is a higher throne
He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Reflection: Here again we hear Jesus telling his followers that they would be clothed with power from on high in order that they would be equipped to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins ‘to all the nations’. But in order to receive this power they were told to wait. This information for the disciples was obviously key as we have seen it repeated in both Luke and Acts. We also are clothed with this same power. This might sometimes mean a period of waiting. Much of the nation and world is currently in a period of waiting, waiting for this virus to be eradicated, waiting for a return to normality. Times of waiting can be frustrating, but if we use them to spend time listening to God they can also be incredibly fruitful. Are we willing to wait on God and listen to what He has to say to us today?
Song – I Will Wait For You (Psalm 130)
When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
Reflection: Here we have another account of Jesus’ ascent into heaven. This time, though, we are given a further insight into the reaction of the disciples. We are told that they worshipped Him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. They may still have been wondering what was going to happen next, they may not have fully understood, but they were left with a sense of great joy. When we look to the risen and ascended Jesus our response, if we trust in His promises to equip us and to return to bring all things to fulfilment, must be joy and praise. We don’t always know what will happen next, but are we able to respond with joy no matter where He may call us?
Song – Oceans
As we come to the end of our reflection, we turn to contemplate these events from another person’s perspective, Mary Magdalene. What does the following interaction between Jesus and Mary Magdalene from John 20 have to say to us about the importance of Jesus’ ascension? We may have read this story very recently on Easter Sunday, but let’s read the familiar story again -
Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus.
He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
Reflection: Mary Magdalene had been following Jesus for some time during His ministry and had watched Him die. It is clear reading this story how grief stricken Mary was when she thought someone had taken His body and how overwhelmed she felt when she realised He was there in front of her, alive. We hear Jesus’ words to her ‘Do not hold onto me’. These words can seem on first reading a little cold, after all it was a perfectly natural reaction for Mary to want to do so. However, if we explore this a little more we can see that Jesus was not telling Mary not to hold on to Him in her heart, only not to hold on to Him physically because He was going to ascend to the Father. Jesus would no longer be physically present to Mary, but this did not mean that He would no longer be present. Jesus had to ascend to the Father in order to send the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. This gift would mean not only that Mary and all of Jesus’ followers would be equipped to spread the good news of the Gospel, but it meant also that Jesus would be personally present with each of His followers forever, all the time. And this applies to us, His followers, today. We have the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are clothed with power from on high. We are never, ever alone. We may feel alone, particularly at this time, but we can be assured that we have Jesus present with us in every moment. And we too now are asked by Him to go and tell others the good news, and we can be certain that He will go with us. He is risen, He is alive, He is ascended, He intercedes for us whenever we go wrong and turn back to Him, He is with us always, Hallelujeh!
‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’
Song – Days of Elijah
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