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Thursday 9 May 2024 The Feast of the Ascension

From grief to grace

Daniel 7:9-14, Acts 1:1-11, Luke 24:44-53

By Nathanael A. Hayler

Church of England Assistant Curate, Diocese of Newcastle

Context: A short evening service of praise, prayer and reflection with a congregation of church-going adults

Aim: to reflect on how self-ascension can draw us away from the truth and power of Christ’s ascension

The Feast of the Ascension is one of those festivals in the Church calendar that speaks for itself. The image that is portrayed by Luke’s writing, both at the end of his Gospel account and in the first chapter of Acts, is vivid and glorious and in just a few verses speaks of this mysterious and profound divine act with simplicity and splendour.


One of the most creative services I have taken part in was a funeral for Jesus. A creative endeavour to hold space on Holy Saturday. The service explored the grief felt by those nearest and dearest to Jesus after his death and before the glorious morning of his resurrection. Holy Saturday is something the Church can struggle to hold amid the Passiontide liturgies and our anticipation of Easter.

Just like Holy Saturday, we are dwelling in yet another liminal space on this Feast of the Ascension. We have grieved with Mary, been awestruck with Thomas, and walked on the Emmaus Road with the risen Christ himself. And suddenly, we are left, again. ‘As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.’ (Acts 1:9)

There is almost a cruelty in Jesus’ departure, done in plain sight and with such dramatic effect. It would be easy to understand this as yet another dark veil marring the glorious resurrection light we are walking in, events we are still trying to understand and live with, forty days on. Another wave of grief is coming for us in this departure. Caught up with such a loss-centred reading of the Ascension and struck with the finality of Christ’s withdrawal (Luke 24:51), I think we have come to fear these liminal spaces – both liturgically and in our lives. These threshold spaces of possibility come with more questions than answers. With the disciples, we are left gazing up towards heaven having lost ourselves in the moment.


This discomfort reveals a problem with our theology of ascension and our, too often, distorted understanding of what it means to live in, with and through Christ’s ascended life. We forget, or perhaps cannot comprehend, maybe even deny, that Christ’s ascension seats humanity next to God. And so, we are happy to settle in our continued attempts of self-ascension – grasping for footholds to bring us out of this liminal space. This distortion has invaded our theology and understanding of God. In this view, God, heaven and holiness are up there somewhere, lofty and unattainable, and consequently, we’re all stuck down here.

This is lived out in so many ways: comparison, competition, and judgement. We compare ourselves and our lives with other people and their lives. Suddenly we find ourselves knocking others back in pursuit of our own righteousness. Holiness becomes a competition: we compete, believing that for us to ascend others must descend. We are forever judging ourselves and one another.

Our attempts at this self-ascension have damaging effects. They separate the creature from the Creator. They destroy relationships and intimacy. Ultimately, we become the very gravity that denies us the ascended life we are seeking. We are the only barrier to this ascension life that Christ has accomplished for us. A life that is already ours. The work has already been done. It is completed.


Jesus’ ascension reshapes our understanding of what it feels and looks like to live, breathe and move in an ascended life, for it is Christ’s ascension that is the balm to heal the wounds inflicted and the damage of separation caused by self-ascension. His is the only authentic and life-giving ascension. Through him, we too can live ascended lives. We too find our heavenly home.

In unpicking our thinking, we learn that the liminal space is not so bad after all. That the grief we often feel at the Ascension can be transformed into an everlasting grace if we trust in the promise and power of the Holy Spirit. God fills the liminal space and blesses it with his Spirit. We are not bereft.

Jesus’ ascension is not about his absence but about his presence. It is not about his leaving, but about the ‘fullness of him who fills all in all’ (Ephesians 1:23). It is not about grief; it is about abundant grace.

(Music to aid reflection after sermon: Christ In Me by Jeremy Camp)

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