This coming Thursday is Ascension Day–the day in the church year when we celebrate Jesus’ post-resurrection-trip-to-heaven. While this is a significant event in Christ’s life and the life of the church, it doesn’t get much play in today’s churches. Growing up in church I remember 2D disciples and flannelgraph feet, but I don’t remember much else said about Jesus’ Ascension. If your church recites the Creeds then it is affirmed: “he ascended into heaven.” However it is little emphasized in worship, in readings, or preaching. Only Luke records the event (though he does it twice) and we may wonder what the big deal is.
In another age the Ascension was celebrated as the crowning glory of the Incarnation. Listen to St. Augustine:
The Ascension is the festival which confirms the grace of all other festivals put together–without which the profitableness of every other festival would have perished. For unless the Savior had ascended into heaven, His nativity would have come to nothing . . . and His passion would have borne no fruit for us . . . and His most holy resurrection would have been useless. -St. Augustine, quoted in Tim Perry & Aaron Perry, He Ascended into Heaven ( Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010) 3.
The following observations are my musings on the significance of the Ascension. I affirm the event as a historic reality. Jesus stood with his disciples somewhere near Bethany where they witnessed him taken to heaven. While the events of Jesus’ Ascension are only described by Luke in Luke 24 and Acts 1, there are a number of passages assume its reality.
So why does it matter? Here are three observations:
- The Ascension means Jesus is absent. In another sense, us post-Pentecost believers know Christ’s presence with us through the ministry of the Spirit. We cling to Jesus’ promise to be with us, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). But let’s not gloss over Jesus absence. One moment Jesus was with his disciples, the next moment he was taken up into heaven and they were told that in the same way he departed, he would one day return. Because of the Ascension we are people between times: Jesus is no longer with us bodily, Jesus will one day return. We pray and work toward the Kingdom of God but as post-Ascension people we live in the ‘already but not yet’ tension of the Kingdom of God.
- The Ascension means that Christ’s Incarnate work is finished. We love Christmas with all its fanfare and we walk with Jesus on the road to Calvary through Lent and Holy Week. On Easter we proclaim Christ’s resurrection with shouts, songs and chocolate bunnies. As significant as Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection are, they lose their meaning unless they are sealed by his Ascension. If Jesus the incarnate one does not return to the Father, than we are left with a fractured deity. If the words of dereliction on the cross resulted in Christ’s eternal separation from God, then there is no hope for humanity. The Ascension is Christ’s vindication and proof that God’s favor rests on Him. Philippians 2:5-11 describe how the Ascension is the telos of Christ’s Incarnation:
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
- The Ascension means that Jesus is sitting at the right hand of God. Jesus is exalted and that means Jesus reigns! This is good news, especially in a world with marathon bombings, political and social unrest, bloodshed. Things on earth are not all as they should be (or will be!), but we can be confident that the risen and ascended Christ, sits with God and intercedes on our behalf.
So Thursday night celebrate the Ascendant one and give thanks that the Christ who is absent will one day return, that his salvific, incarnational work is completed, that he reigns in glory and holds you in his hands.