Posts Tagged ‘40 days’

Jesus’ absence and presence

May 31, 2014

Easter 7 – 2014

John 17:1-11 (Acts 1:6-14)

Marian Free

 In the name of God whose Son we know both as present with us and exalted in glory. Amen.

 One of my friends has a blog on which he writes primarily about liturgy. For the past few years he has invited followers of that blog to support his campaign: “Easter is 50 days”. He is both insistent and persistent in trying to win over his readership and, through them, others to his position. You might wonder why he feels the need to be so vociferous. After all, this is the seventh Sunday of Easter and next Sunday – Pentecost – brings us to 50 days of Easter. A search of the internet will reveal that the length of Easter is a matter for heated debate (or at least a cause for confusion) in the blogosphere. The reason is this: up until the prayer book was revised, the season of Easter used to end on Ascension Day – 10 days short of 50! The argument then, is between those who support the change and those who do not and between those who think the Paschal candle should be extinguished on Ascension Day and those who keep it burning until Pentecost.

It’s interesting, but hardly a matter that will affect our eternal salvation! The seasons of the church as we practice them are somewhat arbitrary and as a result are open to discussion and to change. Jesus didn’t leave any detailed instructions for the church, and apart from instituting the Lord’s Supper, did not suggest the establishment of any festivals. It was believers who, over time, felt that there was value in setting aside days and lengths of time to commemorate different events in Jesus’ life. This did not happen all at once, but was a process that developed gradually and was open to change.

After Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples continued to worship in the Temple or in the synagogue. As well as this they met on Sundays to celebrate the resurrection and to continue the practice Jesus’ had instituted at the last Supper. It was not long before the community began to commemorate the anniversary of the crucifixion on the day of Passover or the nearest Sunday. What began as a single event began to grow until it extended over the course of a week and commemorated all the events in Jesus’ final week from the entry into Jerusalem to the resurrection. Gradually, the celebration of the resurrection – Easter – was extended for the seven weeks or 50 days leading up to Pentecost.

Some time before the fifth century the day of Jesus’ ascension began to be observed as a separate feast. The fifty days of Easter were thus broken into 40 days plus 10 and Ascension Day came to be seen as the conclusion of the Easter season – that is until the 1960’s when we reverted to the practice of the early church.[1]

One of the traditions associated with Ascension Day that remains contentious was the extinguishing of the Paschal Candle after the reading from Acts or after the Gospel. The candle is burned from Easter Eve as a sign of Jesus’ risen presence. It was extinguished to proclaim Jesus’ ascension into heaven and the absence of his physical presence. If Easter ends at Pentecost then of course, the candle should remain lit.

Of course, if Jesus is not bound by time and place, the candle, which symbolizes Jesus’ resurrection, can remain lit. There is a tension however between Jesus apparent absence and Jesus’ continued presence with us and it is reflected in the readings for this morning. In the book of Acts we have Luke’s dramatic description of Jesus’ ascent into heaven. The disciples remain – looking up – as if they expect that the cloud will part and that Jesus will return. It is only when the angels interrupt the disciples’ vigil that they realise that Jesus is really gone and that, at least in the short term, he is not coming back. In contrast, the account of Jesus’ discourse in John’s gospel implies that though Jesus is “no longer in the world” he is still very present to the disciples – reassuring them, challenging them and praying for them.

The question is, which is right – is Jesus now confined to heaven until his coming again? or do we, like the Johannine disciples continue to experience the risen Christ in our lives? Do we experience Jesus’ absence or his presence? The answer is that both are true. Jesus has been exalted to the right hand of God. He has returned to the place from which he came. We cannot know or experience the risen Jesus in the same way as did those first disciples. At the same time, Jesus, being God, is not bound by the constraints that limit us. Jesus can be both exalted and present, both with God and with us. There will be times when we feel Jesus as a living presence in our lives even though we know Jesus to be with God.

It is important to know that the customs of the church are just that – traditions that have developed over the centuries that are designed to give structure to our faith lives, to make our worship more meaningful and to bring into focus particular events in Jesus’ life. They are intended to enrich our experience of faith, not to bind us forever to one way of seeing or to one way of re-living the story. What matters is not so much the external practices of the church, but the internal disposition of our hearts. Not whether Easter is 50 days or 40 days, but whether or not we enter fully into the celebration of the resurrection of Christ. Not whether we debate Jesus’ absence, but whether we or not we experience his presence.

We believe that the risen Christ who transcends time and space is as real to us now as he was to the disciples two thousand years ago and there is nothing – not now nor in all eternity that will extinguish the light of his presence.

 

[1] Not surprisingly the Prayer Book Society encourages the return to the 40 plus 10.

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