“In Protestant churches,” wrote Edward T. Horn III in The Christian Year, “Ascension Day and the Epiphany … are the forgotten festivals of the church.” In part this is because they fall on weekdays and Protestants seem to have an aversion to attending church on any other day but Sunday. Also, the Epiphany is lost in the luster of Christmas and the Ascension is often overlooked because of enthusiastic preparations for Mother’s Day. The result is that millions of American Protestants fail to observe the days set aside to mark the beginning and the end of Christ’s ministry.
We remember what we find significant, and Ascension Day has become a forgotten festival because the Ascension has become a dead doctrine. May 15 will be a a silent Thursday in thousands of churches because the importance of the Ascension has escaped us. Perhaps it is high time for Christians to take a second look at the event and make it a day to remember. If we do so, we will find that Ascension Day is significant in the Scriptures, in the story of the Church, and in the development of systematic theology, and that it is surprisingly relevant to the needs of the Church today.
References to the Ascension are found in both testaments and in both Gospel and Epistle. The event was foreshadowed in the Old Testament in the translation of Enoch (Gen 5:24) and in the ascension of Elijah (2 Kings 2:9–15). It was foretold in prophecy and was praised by David in the Psalter (for example, Psalms 47 and 68). Prior to the crucifixion, Christ predicted his ascension (John 7:33, 34). The first three Gospels conclude with accounts of the Ascension (Matt. 28:16–20; Mark 16:19, 20; Luke 24:50–53), and the fourth Gospel, though it does not describe the event, does include Christ’s announcement to Mary at the empty tomb on Easter morn that “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). John reflects on the meaning of the event in his first letter (1 John 2:1), and the apostle received the Apocalypse in a vision from his ascended Lord (Rev. 1:1, 2; 5:6). Peter was impressed with the importance of the Ascension (1 Pet. 3:22). Paul testified to its deep doctrinal value (Eph. 4:10). In the structure of the New Testament, the Ascension is the connecting link between the life of Christ and the life of the Church. It is both the last event in the history of salvation and the first act in the story of the Church (Acts 1:6–11). Unlike the Resurrection, which was witnessed only by the angels, the Ascension occurred in full view of the apostles and was the occasion for their commissioning as world missionaries. From its anticipation in Genesis to its recollection in the Revelation, the Ascension is regarded as an important act in the work of redemption.
Ascension Day has also been important in the history of the Church. The Ascension occupies the opening chapter of the first church-history book. At the Ascension the Church received what some Baptists call its “marching orders,” or its “Royal Charter of Incorporation” as an evangelistic society. From at least 375, perhaps even earlier, the Ascension was celebrated in the Christian Church. The Venerable Bede, the father of English history, grasped the significance of the Ascension and composed a hymn in its honor in the seventh century. Bede’s final prayer is still frequently used as a collect on Ascension Day. At the time of the Reformation, Luther and his co-laborers retained the festival as a major occasion for preaching the Gospel. The early modern explorers honored the day by naming both an island and a city after it. Even after the spread of rationalism and revolution, Ascension Day survived under Emperor Napoleon I as one of four remaining Christian holidays on the French calendar. The day was dear to the leaders of the Methodist Awakening, including Charles Wesley, author of the Ascension hymn “Hail the Day That Sees Him Rise.” Today Ascension Day is a day of obligation for Roman Catholics and is included on the liturgical calendars of the Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran churches.
Ascension Day has been important for systematic theology. The Ascension is confessed in the three ecumenical creeds of Christendom and is acknowledged in the confessional literature of the Lutheran, Anglican, and Reformed communions. For theologians, Ascension Day declares that the sacrifice of Christ has been accepted by the Father as a ransom for the sins of mankind and, in the words of John Theodore Mueller, it marks Christ’s “triumphant certification as the Savior of the world” (Christian Dogmatics, p. 300). It is also the day on which Christ was vindicated as the eternal Son of God and on which the Master resumed the might and majesty he had put aside at Christmas. In the Ascension we view the glorification of Christ’s human nature and preview the restoration of all believers to the perfection that the race possessed before Adam’s Fall. Christ has become our forerunner, and we will follow the path he has pioneered. The Saviour departed on Ascension Day to prepare paradise for the faithful, and the day is, therefore, a pledge of our immortality, for the Lord predicted, “And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3). For the dogmatician, the day foreshadows Christ’s Second Advent.
Ascension Day is also important in the life of the Church now. The significance of the Ascension for a waiting Church, living between the Saviour’s two advents, is suggested in a phrase from the Apostles’ Creed: “He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” Here is the comforting picture of the seated Saviour. It speaks a relevant word to four crises facing the Church today: the growth of anxiety, the spread of false teaching, the expanding sense of loneliness, and the danger of the collapse of authority.
To an age of anxiety, Ascension Day reveals Christ seated on the King’s Bench as the believer’s eternal advocate. Satan, the Adversary, seeks to accuse the Christian of iniquity in the court of God. But Christ intercedes for us, pleading his sacrifice for sin on Calvary and imputing his innocence to us. Because Christ is our lawyer, the “anxious bench” of guilt and the “mourner’s bench” of repentance are transformed into the “mercy seat” of joy. Job confessed that “even now, behold, my witness is in heaven, and he that vouches for me is on high” (Job 16:19). John knew this when he wrote, “If any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). Paul rejoiced that Christ “is at the right hand of God [and] indeed intercedes for us” (Rom. 8:34). Luther praised the ascended Christ as “the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing.” Wesley found immense assurance in the affirmation that Christ is our attorney in God’s high court of justice. The English evangelical Frances Ridley Havergal sang of that seated Saviour
Praying for his children
In that blessed place,
Calling them to glory,
Sending them his grace.
To an era threatened with the spread of false teaching, Ascension Day shows Christ seated at the teacher’s desk as the Instructor of the Church. Sitting signifies teaching. On earth, Jesus sat to teach. At Nazareth’s synagogue, for example, he gave his sermon while seated (Luke 4:20). In antiquity the chair was a nearly universal symbol of instruction. Margaret Deanesly has written that “in the Roman Empire the sign of the teacher’s office was the chair, the ‘cathedra’ of the rhetor’s school” (The Pre-Conquest Church in England, p. 2). Early Christian preachers delivered their sermons seated in the apse of the basilica, and a pulpit is sometimes still called a preaching desk. Even today Roman Catholic and Anglican bishops teach while seated on a cathedra. Christ is seated at the right hand of his Father as the Defender of the faith, the Educator of the flock, and the Evangelist of the lost.
As the Educator of the church, Christ has given the Holy Scriptures and has sent the Holy Spirit to interpret them. By the Spirit through the Scriptures, Christ instructs and inspires his people and continues the teaching ministry he began in ancient Galilee. Part of this ministry is to call pastors and teachers for the Church as he first summoned the apostles by the seashore. Paul had this in mind when he wrote: “He … also ascended far above the heavens, that he might fill all things. And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up of the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God …” (Eph. 4:10–13).
Church history is filled with illustrations of Christ’s concern for the preservation of the Gospel in the Church. One chain of witnesses is especially impressive, that of Paul, Augustine, Luther, and Wesley. As the Eternal Evangelist, by whom all men are saved, the Lord Jesus converted Paul outside Damascus and delivered to him the inspired utterances of the Letter to the Romans. Almost four centuries after Paul, Augustine, torn by indecision, felt prompted to flee his friends for refuge in a quiet garden where he seemed to hear a voice crying, “Take, read.” Opening the Scriptures, he found a saving word in the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. The reborn Augustine became the greatest exponent of evangelical truth between Paul and Luther. Over eleven hundred years later an Augustinian monk escaped despair and rediscovered the Gospel as he meditated on a Pauline passage, Romans 1:16, 17. Martin Luther learned that the just live by grace alone, and the central affirmation of the Reformation was found. Two centuries later John Wesley, while listening to Luther’s Preface to the Book of Romans, felt his heart “strangely warmed” and his life transformed. The high-church formalist became the father of one of the world’s largest free churches. From Paul to Wesley, Christ established an evangelical succession of preachers and teachers. The ascended Lord is still seeking men to proclaim his message. As Phillips Brooks admonished nearly a century ago in his sermon “The Law of Growth,” “we must be regenerate by Christ, and then the world shall become his schoolroom …” (in William G. McLoughlin, editor, The American Evangelicals, 1800–1900, p. 170). If we respond, the Master will raise up inspired leaders, restore sound doctrine, and send a spiritual revival in the twentieth century.
To an epoch filled with a sense of loneliness and alienation, Ascension Day reveals Christ seated in the bishop’s chair as our Eternal Pastor. In the patristic Church the chair was a symbol of the pastoral office and was associated with the episcopate. The picture of the seated Christ was for early Christians an assurance of the Saviour’s care and concern. Peter’s description of Jesus as “the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls” had not been forgotten (1 Pet. 2:25). Christ is our Pastor still because the Day of Ascension shows how he can fulfill his promise, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20).
The Christ of history is twenty centuries distant from us in time and the Jesus of Galilee is geographically removed across thousands of miles and a vast cultural chasm. If Christ were simply a historical figure, we could know him only in an academic sense. But the Man of Nazareth is also
… the Lord of years,
The Potentate of time,
Creator of the rolling spheres,
Because of the Ascension, Christ is close to Christians of all epochs, locations, and cultures, and can enter into a personal relationship with them. He can keep his promised appointment with the two or three who gather in his name. E. M. Carlson, writing in The Classic Christian Faith, commented:
When Jesus ascended into heaven, he did not leave the earth in the sense that he is no longer here. On the contrary, his ascension brought him closer to us than he could ever have been to his own contemporaries. He left in order that he might be nearer to us all.… He was taken away from among men in order that he might come to dwell within men [p. 93].
The ascended Lord, universally available, permeates congregations with his presence and transforms them into his spiritual body; he listens to the prayers of the faithful and speaks to them through Scripture; he regenerates the hearts of men and leads them to baptism, and by his advent turns the breaking of bread into the blessed communion of a Lord’s Supper. In an age that laments the absence of God, the Ascension is our assurance that Christ is close enough to be our contemporary. As Jesus comforted a tearful Mary in the garden, so he testifies to our troubled hearts that he lives to wipe away all tears from our eyes.
To a decade upset by an authority crisis, Ascension Day shows Christ seated on the royal throne as the Sovereign of heaven and earth. Sitting is an ancient symbol of power. A country’s capital is called the seat of government. Congress sits to make laws. America’s leader is called a president, “one who sits before.” A person with power is said to be “in the driver’s seat.” To govern while seated is an expression of full, patient, unquestioned sovereignty. In Scripture the triumphant Christ is portrayed as a Lamb on the throne, but the defeated Satan is described as a nervous, restless, roaring lion, roaming about the city’s streets. Ascension Day affirms that Christ is in control.
Because of Ascension Day, Christians can confess Christ as Lord of the cosmos. Luther exclaimed, in his explanation of the third article of the Creed, he “lives and reigns to all eternity.” On the Mount of Ascension the Master announced, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth” (Matt. 28:18). Christ, who created the universe (John 1:3), who preserves life (Heb. 1:3), who forgives and regenerates sinners (Matt. 9:6), has now been appointed Ruler and Judge (John 5:27). The Kingship of Christ is confessed by Christians and will be demonstrated to all mankind at the conclusion of world history. Until then, in a society that is nearly shattered by unrest, riot, and revolution, the Christian can be comforted by the knowledge that Christ is ultimately in command. Ascension Day is an annual reminder that Christ will return to consummate the Kingdom. This was, after all, the concluding message of the angels to the apostles on the first Ascension Day: “This Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
Meanwhile, the waiting Church is to work, witness, and worship. That is what the first disciples did: “they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it” (Mark 16:20). What better way could there be for us to resume this ministry than by making May 15, Ascension Day, a day to remember?
C. George Fry, an ordained Lutheran minister, is assistant professor of history at Capital University, Columbus, Ohio. He holds the Ph.D. from Ohio State University.
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