A Reflection for Ascension Day
Today is Ascension Day. The day that Jesus ascended into heaven at the very end of his physical time on earth. This was clearly a traumatic time for the disciples. They had felt very much alone when Jesus had died at the hands of the Roman and Jewish authorities, but then he had risen from the dead and they had welcomed him back. But now he was well and truly gone, at least from their sight. Can you imagine the consternation, the confusion, the astonishment of that day?
Jesus knew who he was dealing with and we saw him preparing his disciples in the Gospel reading last Sunday from St John. Jesus talks about God giving them the Holy Spirit. In more modern versions the term “Advocate” or “Helper” is used, giving perhaps a clearer translation of the original meaning than the King James Version, which talks about a “Comforter”. When it came at Pentecost a few days later, the Holy Spirit was indeed a comfort to the early disciples, as it is today to all Christians. But I do not think it was meant in the terms of making people feel warm and cosy as such. In the Oxford English dictionary “comfort” has several meanings. The obvious ones of consolation and relief from affliction, but it also refers back to the Latin: “com” meaning having and “fortis” meaning strength. Advocate and Helper are quite clearly of assistance, comforter in this context means something that will support and strengthen them. The comforter was not a blanket, it was to enable them to take up a challenge! The baton of spreading Christianity had been passed to them, but they were not alone and they were told to expect this amazing assistance.
We all need support and strength; we all need comfort. At this time especially. Although the restrictions have been finessed a little, there are still many people confined to their own homes and worried about the possibility of contracting the virus. And many are worried about jobs or their children’s education and how the future will look. I am sure that many of us have been feeling a bit down recently – just show me someone who hasn’t! But prayer works and when I feel glum, a few minutes on my knees asking for help and strength does wonders for me. We have to keep faith and while we of course worry, it is fantastic to know that God understands our worries and will give us strength to carry on.
The most famous hymn for use at Ascensiontide is the magnificent “The Head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now”. But I want to go back a bit further to the perhaps less well known “O Christ, our joy, to whom is given”, which has its origins in the fifth century. The fourth verse is really quite wonderful:
Be thou our joy and strong defence,
Who art our future recompense:
So shall the light that springs from thee
Be ours through all eternity.
Richard Austen, Lay Reader St Philip and All Saints with St Luke’s, Kew