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Before Pentecost comes the Ascension of the Lord



Feast day offers a lesson in patience and prayer

By Scott Szabo | Presbyterians Today

Illustration of the risen Christ ascending into heavenI love when the Scriptures recount an event multiple times, but in different ways. When two, three or all four of the Gospel writers detail the same episode, I like to explore the ways that their interpretations differ. What’s even more interesting is when a single voice tells the same story twice, as the author of Luke and Acts does when describing the Ascension of the Lord, the occasion when the risen Christ triumphantly returns to heaven.

I like to think that the Ascension elicited such varied reactions that Luke could not adequately express them in one telling of the story. That perhaps he decided to conclude his Gospel on a high note, reflecting the joy the disciples felt in knowing that Christ was Lord of all Creation. Accordingly, that Acts became the means by which he conveyed the disciples’ anxiety, uncertainty and absolute bewilderment at what was unfolding. Perhaps this is why in Acts it takes the intercession of two people robed in white to get the followers of Jesus to stop staring at the sky! Such an emotionally charged scene certainly deserves a liturgical tradition that gives expression to its depth and richness. Thankfully, the Feast of the Ascension does not disappoint.

As early as the fourth century, the Western Church began commemorating the Ascension on the 40th day of Easter, mirroring the post-resurrection chronology as provided by Luke. Over time, observances have featured the staging of elaborate plays, candlelit processions in which a banner of a lion (Christ) was carried ahead of one depicting a dragon (the devil), as well as the extinguishing of the Paschal candle in worship after the reading of the Gospel for the day. As a “feast” of the Church, Ascension Day has also long been associated with food-based rituals, including the blessing of first fruits and the hosting of meals enjoyed outside. Psalm 47, one of the lectionary readings for Ascension Day — which is May 13 this year — underscores the joyful nature of the day, with its commands to clap, shout and sing.

While Luke’s account of the ascension may be joy-filled and Acts may be anxiety-ridden, both underscore the necessity of waiting. Acts 1:4 has Jesus telling the disciples to “wait for the promise of the Father,” while Luke 24:49 states to them to “stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” They must wait for the outpouring of the Pentecost Spirit. And so, the Feast of the Ascension is not a time for strategic planning. Rather, it is a time to consider what has transpired and to anticipate what is to come.

Waiting is not something I do well. Living near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I have come to appreciate the Amish markets where I can buy groceries. Once, at the end of a hectic day, I was trying to get to such a market before it closed. Arriving with a few minutes to spare, I found the shop locked with a hand-scrawled note on the door reading, “Closed for Ascension Day.” While I was frustrated by the inconvenience, the store’s closure made me much more aware of the countless Amish I saw on my drive home. They were visiting friends, playing softball and appreciating the warmth of an evening in late spring. They were waiting, and to an outsider at least, they seemed to be fully present in that act. Perhaps the greatest gift the Feast of the Ascension can offer a chronically busy world is the reminder — and opportunity — to patiently and prayerfully wait together.

Scott Szabo is the pastor of Oxford Presbyterian Church in Oxford, Pennsylvania.

Ways to observe the Feast of the Ascension

The Feast of the Ascension is Thursday, May 13.

  • Wait in “Jerusalem” — Support your community by patronizing local businesses or engaging in local service opportunities.
  • Go on a meditative walk — Appreciate God’s presence in nature by listening to birdsong or watching a sunset.
  • Commit to prayer — Participate in a nine-day cycle of prayer that bridges the Feast of the Ascension and Pentecost and echoes the time the disciples spent together in the upper room waiting for the gift of the Pentecost Spirit. You can either pray alone or, ideally, join with others virtually or safely distanced.

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