Thoughts for Ascension Day, May 17, 2012.
On Holy Saturday we began our celebration of the Resurrection with the lighting of a new Paschal Candle. (Paschais a Latinized version of the Hebrew word for Passover, so that “paschal” becomes an adjective used to describe something that has to do with the Christian Passover, Easter.) For forty days at All Souls, our Paschal Candle remains lit in the front of the church, reminding us of the risen Christ among us.
But on the fortieth day after Easter, Ascension Day, we follow an old custom by extinguishing the Candle just after the Gospel is read. We hear how Jesus walked with his disciples as far as Bethany, blessed them, and then “withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51). Some churches keep their candle burning through the Ascension and extinguish it on Pentecost. While this extends the Easter season more fully, I wonder if we don’t miss an important insight if we pass too quickly over the Ascension. The ten days between the Ascension and Pentecost can help us to keep faith as we watch, wait, and pray for the Spirit to come in new ways.
I don’t think the Ascension is meant to be understood as Jesus being blasted into heaven like a rocket, or being carried gently by angels, or riding on a carpet of clouds. Jesus ascended “up” into the heart, mind, and soul of God. He ascended into the fullness of God. But however the Ascension happened, it left the disciples without Jesus. It was like a light had been put out. They must have been confused, disappointed, and more than a little afraid. To deal with this in-between time, I imagine the disciples talked with each other, asked questions, and prayed. In other words, they did the same things that we do whenever we feel as though we’re in the middle of something but can’t quite see the way out, whenever we feel bereft of God.
Several years ago on a day soon after the Ascension, I recall a child in church saying to her parents, “Somebody moved that big candle.” We have moved the big candle and its light might have shifted, but God never leaves us alone. With faith and prayer, we continue to reflect on Easter even as we expectantly await the renewal of the Holy Spirit’s presence and power among us on Pentecost.