A strong argument could be made that Ascension Day is the most important event in the life of Christ we celebrate. What a pity the day is so overlooked. I recently surveyed by and large young people about what special day it was in the church year, even hinting it was several weeks after Easter, and not a single person knew what day it was. This speaks not to their lack of faith but to the lack of importance we give to those liturgical elements which bind us to the life of Christ. Why would anyone do this? Why would someone replace the rhythm of Christ’s life and give in to the tyranny of the relevant? One of the great joys of the liturgy is that for a a few brief moments every week, you can leave earthly concerns behind…which actually forecasts one of the four beautiful truths of Ascension!
So on to the four beautiful truths of Ascension, the reason why this day is arguably the most important day of the church year.
First, the day celebrates that Jesus Christ is at God’s right hand. The right hand position is a position of power and authority. As Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given unto me.” He rules over the entire universe.
This is incredible news and a very beautiful truth, because it means that, when we think about God, the ruler of the universe, the Author of creation, we no longer need think of Him as some transcendent, distant, beyond-knowing deity whose ways we can’t know but we just have to submit to them. That’s the Islamic god, Allah. It’s also the god most people worship. It’s the god people bargain with and complain about, or rebel against, or blame for all their problems, or praise profusely when Lady Luck deals them a good hand.
With the revelation of the Gospel, however, the picture we get of God is completely clarified. As Jesus said to Philip, the one who sees Him sees the Father, for they are one. And because Christ is seated at the position of power, we know exactly what the “hidden meaning” of the cosmos is. What is it? It’s God’s love for humanity and desire to be merciful to them, to save them. It’s that God is a good God, who has turned humanity’s greatest evil into humanity’s greatest good. Surely this revolutionizes the vision of every believer, to see the world and see only God’s good and gracious will. How else could we see it? Is Jesus – the loving, good Shepherd, who gave His life for the world – not in charge of all things? And if so, how does that not change our vision of the divine forces at work in this world?
Second, the day celebrates the full restoration of humanity to the position he had lost with Adam’s sin. Adam had been created in full fellowship with the Lord, at peace, enjoying his status as a son of God, living in Paradise, engaging in divine communication. With Adam’s sin this was all lost. Adam was cast out of Paradise, and Satan stood in his place, an appropriate stand-in whose sole purpose is to justify why Adam has no right to be there.
Christ cast Satan from this place. His birth began the restoration – and note how heaven opened up to the shepherds and the angels testified to this new reality – and His whole life worked the various pieces. His death satisfied Adam’s curse. His resurrection demonstrated the victory over the curse of new life. But His ascension was the actual moment when that restoration took effect. This is why Jesus said He could not send the Holy Spirit until He sat down at God’s right hand, because the Holy Spirit wasn’t fully equipped with everything He needed until Jesus has completed His mission. Now, with Christ having restored humanity to its original glory, the Holy Spirit can be sent to embrace humanity into that restoration, giving them by way of declaration what Jesus has done for them.
Of course, the signature testimony of this work of the Holy Spirit is the Our Father. As we pray this prayer, we testify that the Holy Spirit is in us, crying “Abba Father,” and working our new status in Christ, our status as children of the Second Adam.
This leads to the third beautiful truth. In Christ, we have boldness before the throne of God. It’s not as if we are sneaking in under Christ’s righteousness, or as if God doesn’t really see us. No, as Jesus says, “The Father loves you.” (Emphasis on “you.”) And for that reason He hears our prayer.
Finally, the fourth beautiful truth is that expressed by St. Paul when he writes, “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.”
We set out mind on things above. Because that is where our life is. Our existential reality is of being in heaven. Or as St. John puts it in his epistle, “As He is, so are we in this world.” Wow! John uses this truth to teach that we ought to love one another. Of course! What need is there to backbite and claw for one’s own way in this little blip we call earthly life, when our existential reality is we have eternal joys and eternal life, that this is as we are “in this world”? We have it all now!
Of course, sin and the flesh weigh us down and keep our minds focused on earthly things. But again, what a joy to contemplate that there is a way of faith in which one can look at Jesus at God’s right hand, in all His glory, in peace, in joy, in fellowship, and realize “so are we in this world.” Wow!
Well, St, Paul would not need to encourage us in this if this came naturally. But the Holy Spirit’s work is ever to build us into this truth. Liturgical worship is a fruit reflecting this, as is the proper preface invitation, “Lift up your hearts: We lift them up unto the Lord.” Yes we do. In communion we join the angels and archangels and testify to where in fact we actually are. For “as He is, so are we in this world.” Again, wow!