The resurrected Jesus was with His disciples for 40 days, and then He returned to His Father. So on the 40th day after Easter, making it always fall on a Thursday, we celebrate Ascension Day. Today is that day.
This is one of the most significant and yet strangely neglected observances of the Church Year. Part of the problem is that it is so misunderstood today.
Christ’s Ascension does not mean that He goes away and is no longer with us. To the contrary, shortly before that event, Jesus said, “behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). In His time on earth, Jesus was spatially limited to being in one time and one place. But now that He is “seated at the right hand” of God the Father (Ephesians 1:20), the Son of God “fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23).
What the Ascension Makes Possible
Because of the Ascension, Jesus can be present with us in a more intimate way than ever before, even those of us who are living thousands of years after He walked the earth. Now He can dwell in our hearts (Ephesians 3:17). Now He can be in our midst where two or three are gathered in His name (Matthew 18:20). Now He can be present in Holy Communion (1 Corinthians 11:23-29).
Because of the Ascension, Jesus can intercede for us continually before the Throne of God. We can pray to Him, confess our sins to Him, and He can save us. “We have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places” (Hebrews 8:1-2). Therefore, “he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25).
Because of the Ascension, the Church is created. Yes, His body was taken up into Heaven. But His body is also still here, because the Church is His body (1 Corinthians 12: 12-27), made such by our baptisms (1 Corinthians 12:23) and His continual gift of His body in the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). These are not metaphors, but realities.
Because of the Ascension, the Church is empowered. “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). Jesus healed many, but how many has He healed through the Church, which invented hospitals? Jesus fed 5000 at one time, but how many has the Church fed? Jesus preached and taught multitudes, but how many more have heard Christ’s Word through the preaching and teaching of the Church?
The Ascension and the Incarnation
As if all of this were not enough, the Ascension is the fulfillment of the Incarnation. I have heard it said that the Ascension marks the end of the Incarnation, but nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus ascended bodily into Heaven. The incarnate Son of God takes His place in the Trinity.The Athanasian Creed, unpacking the Trinity and the mystery of the Incarnation, says this of Christ:
Although He is God and man, He is not two, but one Christ: one, however, not by the conversion of the divinity into flesh, but by the assumption of the humanity into God.
Celebrating the Ascension
Ascension Day doesn’t involve buying Ascension presents to put under the Ascension tree, and there is no Ascension Bunny. So it doesn’t have the traction of Christmas and Easter. But many of us have been calling for a Christian holiday that is non-commericalized and non-secularized. We have one. So why don’t we celebrate it?
Though still a national public holiday in a number of countries, both Catholic and Protestant (specifically, Austria, Belgium, Colombia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Haiti, Iceland, Indonesia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Namibia, the Netherlands, Norway, Swaziland, Sweden, Switzerland, and Vanuatu), most American congregations tend to skip over Ascension Day, with some–including Catholics–pushing off the observance to Sunday.
What would be some good ways to celebrate?
Go to church if you can. If your congregation doesn’t have an Ascension service on Thursday or at least on Sunday, visit one that does. (Your friendly neighborhood Lutheran church probably will.)
Take advantage of the Ascended Christ’s presence with you. Ideally, that would include worship and receiving the Sacrament. But if that isn’t possible, or even if it is, pray to the Ascended Christ as your intercessor, your high priest in the heavenly places
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
Illustration: Rembrandt’s “The Ascension” (1636), [Public domain or CC0], from Wikimedia Commons