|St. Paul Lutheran, Davenport, Iowa|
The Ascension Of It All
Word association game:
Say Ascension, and what immediately comes to mind?
For me, the answer is John Coltrane (he has a crazy great recording by this title, which tries to evoke the theological topic musically).
Then immediately after John Coltrane, I remember the stained glass window I used to scan weekly during worship at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa. It was positioned magisterially directly above and behind the altar, so at each Eucharist, as the pastor raised the elements for communion, our eyes were drawn upwards to the ascending Christ, who was also drawing the eyes of the disciples up towards him in his ascent.
Finally, I remember the one and only book-length treatment of Ascension I’ve read, Douglas Farrow’s Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology.
So far, however, that’s just a list of things that are typically on the top of my mind in any free association game–jazz albums, churches, and works of systematic theology.
So let’s try again, this time with a prayer:
Almighty God, your only Son was taken into the heavens and in your presence intercedes for us. Receive us and our prayers for all the world, and in the end bring everything into your glory, through Jesus Christ, our Sovereign and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
That’s the prayer of the day for Ascension of Our Lord, one of the less observed though important feasts of the Christian church year, less observed primarily because it falls on a Thursday. It falls on a Thursday because it is consistently commemorated forty days after Easter. Christ spent forty days among the early Christian community after his resurrection but before his Ascension. On the 40th day, he ascended in the sight of his disciples (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9).
Sometimes this type of prayer is called a Collect because it collects the lessons for the day into a short form on which we can meditate in our devotional life, and gathers the hearts and minds of the community into one prayer. This prayer is no exception.
The strange thing about the Ascension is that by going away (ascending) he draws even closer to us. The mystery of the ascension is that it makes way for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Christ’s living and spiritual presence in the community. His ascent is matched by the descent of the Holy Spirit ten days later at Pentecost.
What this means in practice is simple. We are not to look for Christ above or away, but among and between us. Jesus promised, even before his crucifixion: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (John 14:18). Christ’s way of coming to us is by making the community he assembled his own and real presence. We are to look for his presence among us in the gospel words we share and the bread we break together.
As a community “in Christ,” we are free to pray for the needs of the world. We pray in hope, because there is enough of the world still broken that we desperately desire healing in Christ. Our appropriate prayer, when faced with concern for the crisis in Yemen, or our current immigration injustices, or a desire for an end to gun violence, or concerns about climate change and the destruction of ecosystems, is to trust that Christ is already interceding on behalf of all those in any kind of need and then join Christ in those prayers.
All of our best prayers are prayers growing up into the fulness of Christ’s own prayers. And inasmuch as we join Christ in prayer, although our prayers go “up” with his, there is another sense in which the prayers immediately turn us “out” towards the world. Just as Christ’s ascension led to an even deeper engagement with the community he had formed via the Spirit he sent, so too our prayers, paradoxically, though lifted away towards God are in the end the very thing that sends us even deeper into this life. They do so because this is what God is like. God is for us, so inasmuch as we are for God we are always more than ever before for each other and the world God made.
This is why I particularly like the conclusion of most collects. They conclude with this very long acclamation of who God is. They are in no way practical. But they do illustrate glory.
“Into your glory, through Jesus Christ, our Sovereign and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.”
Sometimes the thing we need to remember most in order to experience glory and full life now is to be reminded of how replete and full God’s own life as Trinity already is, and get wrapped up in that. Christ ascended to the Father because he loves his life with the Father. But their life is so full and glorious that it gives away that glory and life to all the world.