Dear Partners in Ministry,
The fire pit was prepared, the keyboard was plugged in, a procession with chairs took place and were arranged around the fire along the sidewalk that gently rose uphill along the side of St. Paul’s. Under the hot sun the fire was struck and we began to sing. Thus began the PLUM version of a celebration of the Ascension of our Lord and, while it might sound kind of strange, our choice of worship format was actually in keeping with the varied and often unusual ways in which Christians have celebrated this festival down through the ages.
Let me explain…..
Since the time of the Apostles, the Ascension has been celebrated as the last earthly act of our risen Lord. It is the event (recorded in detail by Luke in Acts 1:1-12 and Luke 24:49-51) when Jesus, having risen from the dead and having appeared to his followers over a period of 40 days, ascends into heaven to take his rightful place at the right hand of God. As he prepares to depart, Jesus reminds the apostles again that his going will prompt the coming of the Holy Spirit who will enable them to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. This event provides all of us believers with comfort and hope for the future of God’s kingdom because Christ is now and everywhere present, governing and protecting his church. As the angels said to the apostles as they stood gazing up into the sky, “Why do you stand here looking up at an empty sky? This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come as certainly and mysteriously as he left.” (Acts1:11) The Ascension is a joyous time in the festival season of Easter that marks the exultation of our Lord.
But Ascension celebrations have included quite a range of practices in the history of the Church. One common way that believers marked this festival was with a procession that went outside the city or town through fields and pastures, usually to a hilltop in imitation of Christ leading the Apostles’ out of Jerusalem toward Bethany (Luke 24:50) There, the scripture lesson recounting the Ascension, was read. A custom left over from this tradition is our present practice of extinguishing the Paschal (Easter) Candle following the reading of the Gospel.
In the middle ages, the procession gave way to Ascension plays. Some of those pageants were quite elaborate and included hoisting a statue of the risen Christ aloft until it disappeared through an opening in the ceiling of the church. Two boys dressed up in robes impersonated angels complete with wings on their shoulders and wreaths of flowers on their heads. In some cases, once the statue of Jesus disappeared through the ceiling draped in white fabric to resemble clouds, a shower of rose petals, lilies and other flowers along with large wafers dropped from the opening - the flowers representing the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the wafers representing the presence of Christ as he comes to us in the Holy Communion. The play would end with the angels delivering the final message of Ascension Day: The prediction of the triumphant return of the Lord on the clouds of Heaven.
Now, these plays were not sanctioned by the Church but, for a time, were widely practiced. It was during the reformation that the Lutheran reformers rejected them as legitimate celebrations of the Ascension. However, Martin Luther later regretted the hasty condemnation of these pageants when he wrote in 1530, “If such customs had remained as pageants for the sake of youth and school children, to furnish them with a presentation of Christian doctrine and Christian life, then it could well be allowed that Palm donkeys, Ascension plays, and many similar traditions might be admitted and tolerated; for by such things conscience is not led into confusion.”
These days, Ascension celebrations are hard to come by. It is a festival that, for many Christians, has fallen by the wayside. One explanation is that Ascension is dwarfed by Easter and Pentecost (and Mother’s Day, graduations, end of year banquets, etc.). The fact that Ascension always falls on a Thursday (the 40th day of Easter) doesn’t help. In fact, many churches move their Ascension celebrations to the Seventh Sunday of Easter, knowing that, then, they’ll have members present for the celebration.
We did just that! With an outdoor service around a fire pit, we sang the praises of our Ascended Lord and celebrated the hope that is in us that God’s kingdom is being worked out in our midst with the leadership and protection of our ever-present, ascended Lord.
And the most amazing thing began to happen (besides the miraculous absence of rain)! People from the neighborhood gathered around to see what was going on. Cars driving by slowed as their occupants checked out the crazy bunch of Lutherans celebrating and singing and praying and listening once again to the story of our Lord’s Ascension, together. Then, we finished our celebration with S’mores! It was fun, and joyous, and different! Do we know that the gospel message spoke to people in a new and refreshing way? That is up to the Holy Spirit! Does this mean we’ll do the same thing next year? No! Does it mean that all the other celebrations of the Ascension that have taken place in our congregations before this were wrong? No!
What it means is that there is a great history in the Church of people worshipping in different ways, retelling and celebrating the story of our salvation, but always for the purpose of worshiping God, sharing the story that we love so much, building each other up, and making our witness to others of the joy, hope and peace that we find in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is a great history and provides us with a tradition that both grounds us and encourages us to develop the best worship practices for our time and place. So, what shall we do next year? Who knows? But plan now to come and see!
Postscript: We thank the members of St. Paul Lutheran Church and Andrew Sabol, St. Paul’s music director, for their hospitality and for a delightful worship experience for our Ascension celebration!
Pittsburgh Lutheran United Ministries (PLUM), 405 Kennedy Avenue, Duquesne, PA 15110 412-466-7773