Raising Ascension Day

When it comes to the idea of a liturgical calendar I am not against it but I do have some reservations about it. However, if you are going to observe one in some form or another and one of those days is to commemorate the ascension, it is just remarkable how criminally underrated Ascension Day actually is. In the Pentecostal/Charismatic world to which I belong it is even worse. Even though it is one of the few liturgical days that is recognized on paper, in practice it is completely ignored. Even if you do not confess the creeds, Jesus’ ascension to heaven is clearly a fundamental belief that is either mentioned, implied or alluded to through out the New Testament. This is why it is so surprising Ascension Day is not as important as it should be.

The truth is the day is not highly revered because the event is not. It is not that Christians do not think the ascension matters (clearly they do.) I think it is more to do with the fact that we do not know what to do with it. This really hit me some weeks back when I came across a review of Exalted Above the Heavens: The Risen and Ascended Christ by New Testament scholar Peter Orr. What struck me was for the first time I encountered a book that was just about the ascension. It underscored just how sorely neglected the subject has been. That also indicated how little we actually know about what the ascension means since we have not put nearly enough effort into finding out, at least in comparison to other theological topics.

As disappointing as the lack of attention to the ascension is, it also got me excited because there is a frontier of theological knowledge yet to be explored. It isn’t that I had not already noticed that the ascension is underappreciated and there is more to it. In fact, I have written several pieces on it and published some of them on Ascension Day to highlight the critical significance of the event. Discovering that a book like Orr’s even existed encouraged me to take an even closer look.

One of the reasons why the ascension is not discussed more is there are only a handful of passages that directly mention it. So it seems there is not much to say about it. However, Orr’s approach to the matter, which is firmly grounded in the biblical texts, resulted in an entire book on the ascension. This was clear evidence to me that the Bible has much more to say about it than even I had previously anticipated. The trick to gleaning the wealth of things the New Testament has to say about the ascension is about appreciating the nuances of biblical discourse, particularly how it talks about events. Major ideas, themes and especially events are usually discussed and referenced in many different ways in the Bible. So one thing can be discussed in diverse but ultimately related ways. A great example of this is the exodus. In most cases when the Bible refers to it, it is not literally stating it. So in the New Testament the exodus is very pervasive even though it is not directly mentioned many times. The same is true of the ascension. The ascension as an event looms large over the New Testament but references to it are often varied and indirect.

I first began to notice the broad nature of ascension language in the New Testament a few years ago. I realised that when resurrection is mentioned in the New Testament there is sometimes the assumption that it also means Christ has ascended to heaven (Romans 8:34; Colossians 3:1.) Similarly, all language about Christ’s exaltation or glorification is grounded in a real event, that is Christ’s physical ascent into heaven. Without Jesus’ ascension they would not speak of him in such terms. Belief in Jesus’ lordship is also based on the event. They understood the ascension as the concrete event which made Jesus Lord because heaven is God’s throne and Christ is now seated at his right hand (Acts 2:32-36; Philippians 2:9-11.) The ascension is the seen as the fulfilment of Psalm 110:1, which is the most quoted passage in the New Testament. So when it refers to Jesus as Lord it is also a reference to his ascension, that is how he was enthroned as Lord. Even talk about the Spirit is related to the ascension because in Luke and Acts the outpouring of the Spirit to all humanity is understood to be contingent on Jesus’ ascension.

There are many other examples of how the ascension features in New Testament discourse and thought. The examples I have given only begin to indicate how much the ascension matters to Christian faith. A worthwhile way of commemorating Ascension Day is exploring what the Scriptures have to say about it. I think it is good to start with the passages that directly mention such as Mark 16:19-20, Luke 24:50-53, Acts 1:6-11, 2:32-36 and Ephesians 4:7-10.

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