Easter is a season of fifty days, but it seems that in the last bit of Easter the character of the prayers, readings, and music change. Is there a change, or is it me?
No, it is not you. The character of Easter changes beginning on the Thursday following the Sixth Sunday of Easter, the Feast of the Ascension; forty Days after the Feast of the Resurrection. This day (today-May 21) marks Jesus’ bodily ascension into heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father.
We acknowledge this moment not only with the celebration of the feast, but also in our prayers, hymns, and readings which direct us, the Church, to consider the impact on our lives of Jesus’ bodily movement from the kingdoms of this world into the kingdom of God.
Certainly, there is an impact of Jesus leaving. He goes into the realm of God in glory, to be praised by the heavenly host, and affirmed in his faithfulness by God. This impact is important in and of itself. But this aspect of the Ascension is not the only thing. There is also an impact on us, the Church. It is a commissioning. The synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which includes Acts—make this point clear (see Matthew 28.16-20; Mark 16.16-20 [the longer ending], Luke 24.44-53; and Acts 1.6-10). Each of these accounts links Jesus’ bodily leave taking to the sending of his disciples to be his witnesses in this world.
In chronological time the Church experiences the cycle of Easter in this way: 1) Lent—a time of reflection and preparation through a process of reconciliation with God and God’s people, 2) Holy Week—a time of intense reflection through re-engagement with the last week of Jesus in his proclamation, abandonment, suffering, and death, 3) Resurrection—the affirmation of Jesus by God through his being raised from the dead, 4) Ascension—the glorification of Jesus, the Christ, and the commissioning of the Church, and 5) Pentecost—the empowerment of the Church in the sending of the Holy Spirit.
The last two sections of Easter are really subsets of the whole season. The Easter focus of the first forty days is Jesus revealing himself in his resurrected body and instructing the disciples on next things. Ascension, which encompasses the feast day, the Sunday following, and all the weekdays in between (ten days—something like the length of the season of Christmas but with a different focus), is about God fulfilling his promises to Jesus and Jesus sending the disciples forth. Pentecost is the moment of the Holy Spirit walking alongside the Church as a guide, counsellor, and advocate.
No longer living in Christendom (no one ever really did), we can miss the importance of the Ascension. But this Sunday, the seventh Sunday of Easter 2020, I know we will hear a reflection from the Rector which draws attention to this moment in salvation history and why it is important to us today, we will sing hymns devoted to this day in the Christian calendar, and we will pray the prayers of assurance and supplication related to the work we are called by God to do.