We just rushed by the most neglected day of the Church’s year: the “Ascension”, forty days after Easter when the risen Christ left the earth and went to heaven.
Part of the problem: the original event happened on a Thursday. Churches don’t gather to take notice until the Sunday afterward.
Another issue: Jesus lifting off without benefit of propellers or jets just sounds far-fetched.
Christians today rarely give it a thought. As proof I think back to seminary when my fellow Presbyterians were given an ordination examination question on the ascension. I don’t know the stats, but if campus buzz can be trusted they were failing in droves.
It is right there in the Bible — check out Acts 1:6-11.
Christians of earlier centuries found it important enough to put it in the Apostles’ Creed — and so lots of us say we believe it every week in worship.
What are we supposed to make of this story?
The Heidelberg Catechism (the 450 year old summary of biblical Christianity about which I relentlessly blog) explores this question in a characteristic way:
49 Q. How does Christ’s ascension to heaven benefit us?”
Notice that the Catechism assumes that every bit of Christian teaching is there to help us in some way. It is not just biblical facts to memorize. God did and said things in Scripture to teach us things that matter.
So how does this counterintuitive and rather odd scene in Scripture and doctrine help us? Heidelberg says there are three ways:
A. First, he is our advocate in heaven in the presence of his Father.”
Jesus ascended to heaven. Several passages of Scripture tell us what he is doing now that he is there: He is interceding for us, advocating on our behalf (1 John 2:1-2, Romans 8:34, Hebrews 7:25). That’s a helpful bit of news. He may not be here on the scene, but he has gone where he can influence everything that affects us.
Second, we have our own flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that Christ our head will also take us, his members, up to himself.”
Jesus enters heaven as a kind of down-payment. At birth Jesus took our flesh. We are joined to Christ in faith and baptism, so that we who were careening toward death are now joined to life. Now the One who claimed our flesh and to whom we are joined has gone into heaven — and this embodies a promise that he will pull the rest of us up there too.
Third, he sends his Spirit to us on earth as a corresponding pledge.”
The down-payment goes the other direction too. In the upper room Jesus tried to make the case that it was to our advantage that he was leaving — only if he left could he send the Holy Spirit. Now we have the Spirit, the first taste of inner connection to the life of God.
Actually the Catechism brings up a fourth benefit of the ascension:
By the Spirit’s power we seek not earthly things but the things above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God.”
The ascension changes everything. With the Spirit within and Christ above we are reoriented. We no longer need to be obsessed with mundane matters. Now we lift our hearts and minds to seek Christ and all that he calls us to do and be.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments: What did your church make of the ascension this year? How has the ascension been important in your own experience of Christian faith?