In the Lectionary

Sunday, June 1, 2014 (Ascension): Acts 1:1-11

A few years ago, I was in charge of worship at a regional gathering of Lutherans. Solely by accident, the opening service was scheduled on the afternoon of Ascension Day. Not one of us on the committee had ever planned a liturgy for this day. Worship on a Thursday, usually at the end of May or near the beginning of June, simply pressed Lutheran piety too far. We might have a devotion at the beginning of a regularly scheduled meeting, but gathering the whole assembly for worship seemed like too much. Only the most pious even suggested it.

One of the committee members vaguely remembered that one old tradition has the Paschal candle, burning at each worship service since the Easter Vigil, extinguished after the reading of the Gospel. This seemed too literal to most of the group—a ritual extinguishing of the presence of Christ among us, nothing left of the light except an unfortunate wisp of smoke curling its way to the ceiling. I imagined everyone at the worship service standing there staring up as the smoke disappeared into the hotel ballroom HVAC system.

In many ways, the Ascension story is simply too literal for our postmodern sensibilities. We know that the space station is circling the globe just above the clouds. We know that people don’t literally float up to heaven or down to hell. In addition, the story seems a bit forced, the life story of Jesus wrapped up too neatly, providing a dramatic way to explain Jesus’ absence—the church’s experience without his historical presence.