As I write this it is technically the day after Ascension Day…40 days following Easter and the day that the church traditionally associates with the Ascension and enthronement of Jesus at the right hand of the Father. We will remember the Ascension of Jesus this coming Sunday as we read again of the event that is a kind of narrative “hinge” to the two-volume story of Luke and Acts and is narrated in both places (you can read the account of Jesus’ ascension in Luke here and in Acts here). The ascension of Jesus after he was raised from the dead is the event that underlies our confession in the Apostles’ Creed: we believe in “Jesus Christ…[who] ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” It is a day to recall and give thanks that the crucified and risen Christ did appear to Peter, Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and many more of the disciples for 40 days while Jesus taught them God’s Word, broke bread with them, and comforted them with the assurance that His victory over sin, death, and the Adversary was real. But this visible aspect of Jesus with His followers was not to last. It was only a transition to something more. Though the Jesus that sits enthroned with the Father is One who is now “above all rule and power and authority and dominion” (Eph 1:21), He was first known to His followers by His suffering and the wounds of His crucifixion in order that they might be His witnesses in spite of whatever life would bring their way. As the visible Lord Jesus departs from the story, the promised Holy Spirit of God (and the members of Jesus’ body, the church who would receive God’s Spirit) take center stage!
This Sunday as we read the text that describes the Ascension of Jesus we will extinguish the Paschal Candle. The Paschal Candle symbolizes the visible presence of Jesus with His disciples during the 40 days he was with them after His resurrection. It will be lit again next Sunday, since the Paschal Candle at Trinity is always lit whenever there is baptism. But we extinguish it as a reminder that the season of the risen, visible Christ was short. Though the comparison is imperfect, the Paschal Candle reminds me a little bit of the candles on a birthday cake. We light it/them briefly, giving thanks to God for the gift of Life that the burning flame represents. But then we extinguish the fire, with applause and celebration, eager to dig into the gifts that have been set aside for us to receive.
You may not have noticed, but that celebration…in spite of all…is the witness we have been given to make. Alleluia, Christ is risen, indeed! Come Holy Spirit!