Service for the Ascension Sunday
[Keep a moment of silence, calling to mind that, though we are unable to gather together, we share fellowship as a Church family as we offer this short act worship in our own homes]
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
During Eastertide we have been celebrating with joyful hearts the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, his bursting from the tomb and his defeat of the power of sin and death. He appeared to his disciples many times and told them about the kingdom of God. Today we recall how he left this earth and returned to his Father, ascending into heaven to take his throne over all dominions and powers.
Alleluia, alleluia. Go and make disciples of all nations, says the Lord. Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. [Matthew 28]
Grant, we pray, almighty God, that as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens, so we in heart and mind may also ascend and with him continually dwell; who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
New Testament Reading: Acts 1.1-11
A reading from the Acts of the Apostles
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 baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with[b] 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.” 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.”
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord. We remember how, forty days after his resurrection and in the presence of his disciples, Jesus ascended through the cloud into heaven where he now reigns as ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords’.
In St Luke’s description of the event he draws from his own understanding of the universe. Like the people of his day he saw creation as being three tiered; the earth, with heaven above and hell below. So the ascension of Jesus made the utmost sense to him. The readings we listen to and the hymns that we usually sing in Church all speak of Jesus ‘going up’. In the same way we still use the age-old imagery when we talk of heaven as being ‘up there’.
When the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, returned to the earth in 1961 one of the first things he is reputed to have said was that he did not see God ‘up there’. His claim came as no surprise to anyone, for to limit the Ascension to the ancient world understanding of the universe is to miss the point completely.
What we celebrate today is the mystery that when Jesus ascended he did not go to reign in the endless vacuum that is deep space; he returned to the glory that was his before he took our human flesh. For the twenty first century Christian heaven is thought of theologically, rather than geographically, as the dwelling place of God.
St. Luke’s description of the Ascension is summed up in the phrase, ‘a cloud received him from their sight.’ This was not just any cloud, it was the ‘Cloud of glory’, what the Old Testament refers to as the ‘Shekinah’. The Shekinah always represented the presence and mystery of God. It led the Israelites through the wilderness to the Promised Land. It filled the tabernacle tent and was the glory of God in the temple. We read of the Shekinah cloud at the Transfiguration, when the disciples were given a glimpse of Jesus’ divine glory on the holy mountain. At the Ascension it received the risen Christ and released him from the constraints of his earthly ministry. It’s why we celebrate today his promise, ‘Lo I am with you always to the close of the age.’
The Ascension will always remain a mystery of our faith. It may well use imagery drawn from an ancient world view of the cosmos but, if it celebrates anything, it proclaims the risen Christ not as being ‘up there’ but ‘with us always’. It’s why the angels, who were present to mark such a defining moment in the Gospel story, say to the disciples. ‘Do not stand there, open mouthed, looking up to heaven. Look around you, for it is where you will see Jesus again.’
It also celebrates how Christ has taken our humanity into heaven, to the right hand of God. He bears the marks of his passion and of our human suffering. It is also intensely political, for it proclaims that Christ’s reign of love and truth is supreme over all earthly authority and power.
As we come to the end of the tenth week of national lockdown we are now looking to those in political power to lead us out of the present restrictions to what the ‘new normal’ will bring. They have to balance kick-starting our economy and opening up society with the need to protect the vulnerable from this cruel virus. It’s an anxious time for us all.
When those present at the Ascension returned to Jerusalem they too were anxious for what the ‘new normal’ would mean for them. Though the experience was a second bereavement they would come to know that their Lord left them so that he could be more intimately with them. Luke tells us that they spent their time in prayer waiting for the promised ‘Power from on high’. When the day of Pentecost came they were empowered to go out and change the world, transfiguring human lives for the good in Christ’s name.
As we look to what the future might mean for us, we celebrate today how the risen Christ is not remote or beyond our sight; we can know his presence and power with us now. Until he comes again to make all things new we have his Ascension promise, ‘Lo, I am with you always.’ It’s what gives us hope!
Lord God Almighty, the Ancient of Days, you have given your Son all authority in heaven and on earth: hear us as we pray for the world he came to redeem. We pray for world leaders and scientists as they make important decisions during this time of global pandemic. Grant that we may know the things that make for peace, and may strive for the reconciliation of all people in his kingdom of justice and love.
Hear our prayer.
Father of all, whose Son has promised to be with us always; hear us as we pray for those among whom we live and work. We pray for our neighbours, families and friends and for those who are fearful at this time. We remember especially our NHS staff caring for those who have contracted Covid 19 and all our frontline workers. In all that we do, may your kingdom come and grow in us.
Hear our prayer.
O God our Redeemer, whose Son ever lives to make intercession for us: hear us as we pray for those who are ill at this time. May he who has borne our infirmities strengthen and heal them, that they may find grace to help in time of need, and rejoice in his salvation.
Hear our prayer.
Heavenly Father, whose Son has borne our humanity into the heavenly realms, and gone before us to prepare a place for us: hear us as we remember before you those whose earthly sojourn is over, and whose life is now hidden in him with you. Make us joyful and expectant, that at his coming, with all his own, we too may go forth to meet him, and share in his eternal joy.
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.
Prayer for those who are unable to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion
O Blessed Lord, in union with the faithful throughout the world, at every altar of your Church where the Eucharist is being celebrated, I desire to offer you praise and thanksgiving. I present to you my soul and body with the earnest wish that may always be united to you. Since I cannot now receive you in the Sacrament, I invite you to come spiritually into my heart. I unite myself to you and embrace you with heart and mind and soul. Let nothing ever separate you from me, so that I may live and die in your love. Amen.
[Keep a moment of silence for spiritual communion with the Lord and with our brothers and sisters]
The head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now;
a royal diadem adorns the mighty Victor’s brow.
The highest place that heaven affords is his, is his by right,
the King of kings and Lord of lords, and heaven’s eternal Light;
The cross he bore is life and health, though shame and death to him:
his people’s hope, his people’s wealth, their everlasting theme.
Thomas Kelly [1769 – 1855]
Christ the exalted King pour upon us his abundant gifts that we may serve him in the world and reign with him in glory; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be with us and remain with us always. Amen.