Ascension Day is the time where Jesus offers his final words to his disciple, after which he ascends into heaven. Pentecost is when the Holy Spirit comes upon the church such that they are emboldened to become the church and act out the ministry of Jesus.
I want to explore the relation between Ascension Day and Pentecost because I believe in that relation hangs a tale that describes something about us, and our faith development.
To do so, I believe we need to suspend or bracket questions on whether it happened or not. We don’t live in a three tiered universe where heaven is up there and hell is down below and we are in the middle. In that sense, the story, taken as literal, provides a dead end. Instead I want to look at the function of the story and compare it to Pentecost.
In Ascension Day Jesus leaves, his ministry is done. It is an experience of divine absence, and the disciples return from the experience afraid. There is something recognizable in this movement, the way the divine steps aside, so that the church can step forward, take on its responsibilities.
It may be like the teenager, the gradual stepping back required of parents, to give freedom to the child as they become an adult. I’d call this absence, not abandonment, big difference. But there is the movement, where the parents step out of way.
I remember being a freshman in college. The process and the move was so exciting. That was until my folks helped me unpack and then drove off. All of a sudden I realized I was alone. My folks lived 500 miles away and I had no idea what I was doing.
I often hear critiques of religion, that God is the ever attendant parent. The parent who will never let the kids grow up. The parents who must always be parenting the adult child well past it is time for the child to become an adult. They speak in terms of religion as an infantile disorder.
Now with Mother’s Day around the corner, I want to celebrate the role of parents, of mothers, fathers, and mentors in our lives. On one level, they always remain with us, both the good and the bad.
But it is precisely because we do become adults that we are in a position to evaluate that role, to take what is good, to leave some of the bad behind, and to build our own person. That movement, that transition is important for maturity, as an adult and in our faith.
On Ascension Day, we do not have an account of a God who never will let us grow up. In fact we have a very different account. Jesus doesn’t stay. He doesn’t build a church, and he offers few instructions. Jesus is not building an empire, he says you too will do what I did and more so, hands the keys to the disciples. If that moment never happened, we may never had a church.
Now we are promised that we’re not alone. This is why the story of Ascension Day is not a story of divine abandonment. It is a story of divine absence. And there is a difference.
Because good parents don’t abandon their children, even as we know many who have. Rather good parents have your back.
So for instance in college, you know you can always call the folks but you’re still the one alone in college, doing your homework, getting out of bed yourself. You can always go back home, you know you have support, and yet it is also up to you to finish the task.
That dance between our responsibility and divine support is the dance between Ascension Day, where we are on our own to complete the work that must be done and Pentecost, the promise of that backing, that support in that work.
With the experience of divine absence, the disciples return from that experience, afraid. Just like I was waiting for my folks to drive home. The sudden realization that I was being thrown into adulthood, whether I was ready or not. I will say I shed some tears that day. Even if by the second day in college, the possibilities seemed to open up.
I think we skip over that feeling of absence and can often rush to celebrate Pentecost, that support, that feeling and spirit of divine presence which is so important to us. But you need Ascension Day to have it happen. Just like you need Lent for Easter to happen, Advent for Christmas, preparation for consummation.
In our culture we don’t get too many messages that indicate faith as a process, a journey, something that might involve this movement, this growth, this maturation. Which is why it’s time for progressive Christians to lift up Ascension Day as central to our understanding of what an adult faith can mean.
Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings