Find here a recording of our Ascension Day service with the Church of the Epiphany. Scroll down to read the text of my sermon. Thank you for watching, and thank you for being a part of this special service.
Jesus said to his disciples, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you– that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
We’re gathered together on this Thursday of the Ascension to celebrate, well, Jesus’s ascension into heaven to sit “at the right and of the father.”
I want to offer just a very short reflection here about the meaning of this feast: why we celebrate it when we do and what celebrating it might mean for us – or at least help us to think about.
Though the Ascension is named and recognizes in both of our creeds, the Apostle’s Creed, which we’ve been saying throughout the time we’ve been observing Morning and Evening Prayer, and the Nicene Creed, which we typically say in our services of Holy Eucharist, its proximity to the fact that it falls on a Thursday, and its proximity to Pentecost means we don’t always pay a lot of attention to it, at least not on the “day of” – this Thursday, exactly forty days since Easter Sunday.
In chatting about the readings assigned for this day [Kathy] noted how often a period of 40 days (and 40 nights) comes up. And indeed, in the Hebrew scriptures 40 days or years is often the length of a time of probation, or in-between-ness, liminality. The Israelites wander the desert for 40 years. Noah and his family endure 40 days and 40 nights of rainfall. The prophet Ezekiel spends 40 days lying on his right side. Moses, Elijah, and later Jesus fast for 40 days – which also coincides with the 40 day season of Lent. And, as we know, today, according to Luke (who wrote Acts, as well as the Gospel of Luke), marks the end of the 40 days period Jesus remains with his disciples after his resurrection before ascending into heaven.
This consideration of the holy number 40, particularly with its relationship to times to liminality and transition, also brings up the very interesting question of how we, in our modern age, measure important spans of time. Specifically, how do we, in 2020, demarcate our own periods of transition or change?
We are living in a moment in history that has done strange things to our sense of the passage of time. Forty days ago, April 12, we were gathered for Easter. In some ways, it feels like decades have passed since then. But in other ways, Easter feels like just yesterday.
The sameness of our days–those of us lucky enough to be able to work from home–paired with the constant stream of distressing news taking place just outside our door, creates an odd disjunct: a new relationship to time that has a little bit in common with the way members of contemplative monastic communities live.
Members of the Carthusian order, for instance, commit themselves to a pattern of life that includes almost complete seclusion from the outside world. Time is marked through the Daily Office. They use their voices only in prayer and singing. Through this intense repetition, they, in a way, live outside of chronological time – they live in God’s time, a fully occupied present moment, with little regard for past or future.
Now, I don’t think that most of us are really able to live this kind of contemplative life. But I do think that our current circumstances have given us a greater appreciation of the way time slows and speeds up – does not work in a linear fashion.
And in a sense, this is what the holy number of 40 days, or forty years, is all about. We have no idea how long the Israelites actually wandered in the desert. Or if Jesus really fasted for 40 days. Or if the reigns of the Biblical kings Saul, David, and Solomon were really all about 40 years in length. But assigning the number “40” to these spans of time marks them out as holy. It’s not a chronological demarcation, but an indication of their holiness. The fact that these are times of transition. Times of change. Times in which something holy and sacred is underway. Perhaps no coincidence that 40 weeks is also the human gestation period.
So: Luke, in Acts, tells us that “After his suffering [Jesus] presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father.”
Today marks the end of that forty days. But in the scope of this year, our forty days may be on-going. Our forty days is the period in which we discover how God through Christ is speaking to us, working in us, and guiding us in our actions – even if mathematicians would tell us that we are mis-counting: not 40, but seventy, not 40 but 90.
It’s not about the number, but about how we honor this gestational period in our lives, how we live into Christ’s call, how we learn from him, and how we prepare ourselves to face what’s next, serving our neighbor, loving one another, and seeking the path of justice.