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May 2019

Happy Ascension Day!

Today is Ascension Day on the Church calendar. The Church calendar is meant to reorient our lives around the timeline of Jesus Christ’s own life and work, and Ascension Day draws attention to Jesus’ ascension into heaven (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:1-11), forty days after his resurrection (Acts 1:3). Here are ten reasons to celebrate Ascension Day from John Witvliet:

1. The ascension of Jesus testifies that what we can perceive with our five physical senses is only part of the splendor God has envisioned for us—while doing nothing to denigrate the beauty of our bodily experience of the world around us.

2. The ascension of Jesus gives us language to speak about both Jesus’ absence and presence — his absence from us in the body, and his presence with us through the Holy Spirit. Being honest about Jesus’ absence is the first step to being open to God’s empowering presence with us in the Holy Spirit.

3. The ascension of Jesus depicts the boundary between earth and heaven as permeable. Our prayers cross over this boundary, Jesus’ resurrected body passes through this boundary, and — one day — so will ours.

4. The ascension of Jesus changes how we visualize heaven. It pictures heaven as a place in which resurrected bodies belong. Heaven is not just ethereal and vaporous.

5. The ascension of Jesus changes how we visualize Jesus today. As you read this, in the present tense, Jesus is not passive, but active. Jesus is praying for us (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 24-25). Jesus is sending the Spirit. Having prepared a place for us, Jesus is actively waiting for us.

6. The ascension of Jesus helps us see lordship and sovereignty as good and gracious. In this sad world, power is equated with bullying or coercive force. In contrast, fusing the words “reigning Lord” and “Jesus Christ” transforms our understanding of power and helps us envision the kind of power that is purely good and altogether lifegiving.

7. The ascension of Jesus changes our picture of suffering. The ascension of Jesus helps us see that heaven is a place that is not indifferent to human suffering (Hebrews 4:14-16). This calls us to embrace the overlapping rhythms of worship, pastoral care, and justice. Ascension Day is a profound resource for addressing deep pastoral needs — for those who struggle with depression, guilt, shame, burnout, shallowness, and conflict; for those who are persecuted; for victims of war and violence; for victims of abuse and tragedy.

8. The ascension of Jesus can prevent us from over-identifying with everyday reality. The ascension “sets our minds on things above” (Colossians 3:1), and reminds us that our citizenship is in heaven. This, in turn, teaches us to invest deeply in our work and daily life, but to hold on to it loosely. It gives us a basis for passionate living that is graced by freedom, not grasping; invitation, not control.

9. Ascension teaches us a lot about ultimate desire, the kind of soul-aching desire that drives so much of our human striving. It reminds us that our ultimate desires cannot be satisfied with life as we know it, that ultimately all God’s saints long for “a better country” (Hebrews 11:16).

10. Ascension humbles us. It shows us how limited our minds, imaginations, and words really are. It teaches us to ground our worship in doxology: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!”

(originally published in Reformed Worship 115, March 2015)

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