Today, May Day, is also Ascension Day, in the western church calendar. The pagan and Christian festivals coincide today for the first time in nearly a century, because Easter was exceptionally early this year, and because it is always on the fortieth day after Easter (based on Acts 1:3 and counting inclusively) that the church marks the Ascension to heaven of the risen Jesus. And because this fortieth day is not a Sunday, the Ascension is often ignored by the church, perhaps marked by a poorly attended midweek service, but not taught about in a prominent way.
The Ascension is the one known incident in Jesus’ life which is not definitely reported in any of the four gospels. The mention in Luke 24:51 is both textually and contextually rather doubtful. But it is clearly narrated in Acts 1:1-11. It is also a difficult doctrine for modern Christians, because it seems to imply a rather primitive worldview that heaven, the home of God, is literally in the sky. We are used to artistic representations based on that worldview, but we find it hard to believe that they represent what really happened.
One such representation illustrates Michael Barber’s post Five Reasons the Ascension Was Necessary. In this post Michael follows up earlier seasonal posts on the Cross and the Resurrection with a similar summary of Thomas Aquinas’ teaching on the Ascension. Here are his five points:
- The Ascension helps foster faith in Christ;
- It inspires hope;
- It impels us to grow in charity (I didn’t understand the connection here);
- It helps us grow in our reverence for Christ;
- In it Jesus enters into heaven with our humanity.
I would say that here there are three or four reasons why the Ascension was helpful, and one, the fifth, why it was necessary for the completion of our salvation. For indeed it was necessary for Jesus, the pioneer or trailblazer, and perfecter, of faith (Hebrews 12:2), to open the way for our redeemed humanity to be taken up along with his humanity into God’s presence.
Michael finishes with this quote from Aquinas:
Christ’s Passion is the cause of our ascending to heaven, properly speaking, by removing the hindrance which is sin, and also by way of merit: whereas Christ’s Ascension is the direct cause of our ascension, as by beginning it in Him who is our Head, with whom the members must be united.
But let’s not think of the Ascension as Jesus being taken from the earth into a heaven situated in the sky. Under point 5 Michael quotes Aquinas quoting Ephesians 4:8-10. This passage is perhaps the clearest biblical teaching on the meaning of the Ascension, and shows that Paul’s worldview is not the “primitive” one that Jesus went upwards to a heaven in the sky. For it teaches that Christ
ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.
Ephesians 4:10 (TNIV)
So we should not think of the risen and ascended Jesus today as having gone away to some distant heaven far above us in the sky. This is not the time referred to in Mark 2:20 and parallels, when the wedding guests will fast because the bridegroom has been taken from them. No, the outcome of the Ascension is that the risen Jesus is with us always (Matthew 28:20), wherever we go, because he fills the whole universe. This outcome is confirmed by the pouring out, ten days later at the feast of Pentecost, of the Holy Spirit, who is the agent through whom the continuing presence of Jesus is made manifest in his people.
So let’s not forget about the Ascension of Jesus, neither because it took place mid-week nor because we are embarrassed by how it has been depicted in art. Instead, let us celebrate this day as assuring us that our humanity is fully acceptable in God’s presence and that Jesus is with us always and wherever we go.