By the time you start thinking about Ascension and Pentecost services Easter will have passed. Pastors and worship leaders are giving a collective sigh of relief that they have reached this stretch of Ordinary Time without any great expectations for special services. But wait—the gospel story isn’t over yet. Christ has been raised from the dead, but the story continues through Christ’s ascension and the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and beyond. It is with the giving of the Holy Spirit that we join the story.
Storytelling is a universal phenomenon playing a significant and revered role in all cultures before our modern western age. Through the passing on of stories, history was learned and remembered, children were educated, truths were passed on, and hope was given. Listeners learned about good and evil, about perseverance in the face of all kinds of trials, and that ultimately good wins over evil. Many stories portrayed a simple dichotomy of good versus evil, but more complex stories showed that most of the world had a propensity for either, and it was up to us to choose to do right.
We are a culture that fears the uncomfortable, looks for the easy option, and is quickly distracted by the latest shiny bauble. We are a culture that does whatever it can to avoid being confronted by the darkness and evil that surrounds us, to live in denial of the atrocities occurring even in our own communities. We are a culture that is quick to lay blame for the struggles of other humans at their feet rather than consider our own part in supporting systems that have created and maintained injustice. We don’t want to see or feel truth.
It isn’t fun or exciting to talk about aging or death. So we don’t. Maybe we think that by ignoring it we can pretend neither reality exists. North American culture has been particularly adept at sanitizing death and coming up with any number of products to disguise the reality of aging. The result is that we aren’t honest with others, ourselves, or God about the challenges and fears that surround either aging or death. It also means that we often don’t honor or celebrate the older adults in our communities.
Growing up we always celebrated Ascension Day on Ascension Day, which meant gathering for worship on a Thursday night. Interestingly, we did little for Pentecost and never even mentioned Lent. These days Ascension Day services during the week are fairly rare, and sometimes the ascension gets little more than a passing reference the Sunday before or after even while Pentecost has gained in significance. While I applaud the increased attention Pentecost receives, I think we lose out by lessening emphasis on Ascension Day. We need both, equally.