We used to have Thursday night Ascension Day services in my home congregation. I grew up thinking how odd it was for my dad to come home from work on what always felt like a warm and sunny spring evening, and—instead of rousting us outside to do a quick round of chores—my parents launched into full-on “getting-ready-for-church” mode. With no time to spare!
That’s because my dad sung in the choir. And they always practiced before they sang. And they always sang for Ascension Day.
It was kind of a big deal at Our Shepherd in the 1960s and 70s. So much so that I now wonder why this festival day has become such an Eastertide also-ranin these 20-teens.
The challenge with Ascension Day
Admittedly the Ascension raises a lot of hard questions. In my work with Sparkhouse as managing editor of “The Hardest Question” blog, I’ve been privileged to be on the receiving end of some of those hard questions from the Church’s most profound theologians.
Danielle Shroyer once wrote in a THQ blog post entitled “Ascension: The Great Day of Honesty”:
There are some stories in Scripture that veer into what I call “Fringe” territory; unknown, supernatural stuff we don’t have names for except to say they are strange, and we don’t know what to make of them. Welcome to the Ascension, where that kind of thing happens.
Phyllis Tickle in her post“Act as Do Those Who Understand” asserts:
Intentionally sacrificing one’s own self-ness for Jesus’ unnatural way requires absolute, unflinching intellectual belief in his resurrection and ascension into a life that exists beyond, or is external to, the reach and dimension of Time. And/or it requires an unmediated wholeness of love so attuned as to know beyond fear and any hesitation that by following his way in time, we escape it into him.
Both of these observations about the Ascension of our Lord address the unbelievability and yet the utter necessity of this moment—for the disciples and for the Church. This includes the Church today. Which drills down to my hard question—though I’m not alone in asking it.
Why go, Jesus?
“The Great Day of Honesty”
After all the blood, sweat, and tears; after all the “it is finisheds,” “fear nots,” and “peace be with yous.” Having accomplished our redemption, rising victorious over sin, death, and the devil’s power.
Why go, Jesus?
Is 39 days really enough time to celebrate Easter, to recover from the rigors of Good Friday, and to brief your disciples on what we now call the “Great Commission”? Were you really in that much of a hurry to get off the planet? To get beyond our time and space and ascend into your rightful placeas the cosmic Christ?
I don’t think I’m speaking only for myself when I say that I really wish you would have stuck around a little longer, Jesus. Like, say, 2018 years or so longer!Likewise, Danielle Shroyer writes:
I’ve begun a little campaign in recent years to call Ascension the Great Day of Honesty, where we all admit out loud that Jesus isn’t here, and we all wish he were, because most of the time we have no idea what we are doing.
I totally get that.
In the sacristy of the church where I serve as worker priest is a framed version of something called “Luther’s Sacristy Prayer.” The first line of this prayer gets me every time:
Lord God, You have appointed me as a Bishop and Pastor in Your Church, but you see how unsuited I am to meet so great and difficult a task. If I had lacked Your help, I would have ruined everything long ago.
Why Ascension is essential
Standing over 500 years since Luther, about 2000 since Jesus’ ascension into heaven, I suppose it is rather miraculous that the Church endures. It endures despite all human efforts to shipwreck the thing.
And so, my mind inevitably drifts to some of Jesus’ most amazing pre-ascension promises (emphasis mine):
"You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.”
"Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”
"Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact,will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”
Clearly these passages imply that Christ's ascension into heaven activated something very powerful, even essential, within the economy of the Holy Trinity. Or, perhaps, I should say there’s something powerful, even essential, on account of Christ’s ascension that is activated in us! I’ll let greater theologians than I am hash out the details. But what seems clear to me is that the Ascension of our Lord paves the way for Pentecost and beyond.
By his ascension, Jesus dares to assert the reality of our hard-won redemption. Jesus dares to make us full partners in his work of reconciliation. And, above all, Jesus dares to say that each of us are worthy vessels of God’s Holy Spirit.
By Jesus’ ascension into heaven, his ministry of the Gospel is multiplied a billion-fold in us. The fruits of the Spirit overflow abundantly from God’s global Church upon the world. Gifts of the Holy Spirit are released with creative diversity and energetic efficacy. Christ releases his body from being in one particular space at one particular time. The ascension elevates the Body of Christ to the lips of God so that—just as our breath explodes a sphere of dandelion seeds—the Holy Spirit might blow, and the Body of Christ might be dispersed!
Why go, Jesus?
I believe it’s so that you and I might more fully…be…Jesus.