Today is Ascension Day, forty days after Christ's Resurrection, when He gave His final earthly encouragement and directions to His disciples before Ascending to the right hand of the Father. Today's Epistle reading is from Acts 1:
1 In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
4 And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 9 And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (English Standard Version)
The Gospel reading relates the same event, also told by Luke at the close of his gospel account:
50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. 51 While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple blessing God. (ESV)
The Collect for Ascension Day from The Book of Common Prayer 2011 which Father Keith Acker of Alpine Anglican Church of the Blessed Trinity modernized and I helped to edit:
ALMIGHTY God, as we believe your only eternal Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, ascended into heaven; Grant that we may also ascend into heaven in heart and mind until, at the last, we may dwell with him forever; Who lives with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and always. Amen.
Father Bosco Peters, an Anglican priest in New Zealand who runs the amazing Liturgy.co.nz site, posted a wonderful reflection on Ascension can be read here: Ascension Day.
On Twitter, Father Peters noted that Ascension Day is a holiday in several European countries, such as France, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, etc. Yet we in America hardly even know of this Biblical holy day, at least among American evangelicals. Part of Eastertide which lasts until Pentecost (just ten more days!), Ascension is obviously noted in Scripture as being forty days after Christ's Resurrection.
This holy day has been celebrated since the early years of the Church, as the Catholic Encyclopedia notes:
The observance of this feast is of great antiquity. Although no documentary evidence of it exists prior to the beginning of the fifth century, St. Augustine says that it is of Apostolic origin, and he speaks of it in a way that shows it was the universal observance of the Church long before his time. Frequent mention of it is made in the writings of St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and in the Constitution of the Apostles. The Pilgrimage of Sylvia (Peregrinatio Etheriae) speaks of the vigil of this feast and of the feast itself, as they were kept in the church built over the grotto in Bethlehem in which Christ was born (Duchesne, Christian Worship, 491-515). It may be that prior to the fifth century the fact narrated in the Gospels was commemorated in conjunction with the feast of Easter or Pentecost.... Representations of the mystery are found in diptychs and frescoes dating as early as the fifth century.You may read the full article from the Catholic Encyclopedia here: Feast of the Ascension.
I just don't really understand why American evangelical churches do not celebrate these Biblical festivals, or at least Pentecost if not Ascension. Pentecost lands on a Sunday every time, so there's really no excuse not to at least mention it...if not read the Scriptures recounting the gift of the Holy Spirit to the waiting disciples and perhaps even preach on the subject. Yes, every day of our earthly existence should be a celebration of what Christ has done for us, and every Sunday should indeed be a celebration of the Resurrection power and love of Jesus. But noting and celebrating these other Biblical holy days seems like a wonderful idea to me, one in which we can walk in the footsteps of our Risen Lord, glorifying Him who first loved us.
Enjoy a blessed Octave of the Ascension,