Today, May 14, is Ascension Day. Don’t feel bad if you didn't know; this important day is often overlooked. On Ascension Day we remember Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Is this a mere historical fact or is there something more significant? After all, are not his birth, death and resurrection the important days in the Christian faith? As you might guess, there is something more to consider.
The celebration of Christ’s ascension is a very old festival in the church; it goes back to at least the fourth century, maybe even earlier. Because Ascension Day celebrates the completion of Jesus’ work of salvation, it was considered to be as important as Christmas and Easter. It was prior to his ascension that Jesus gave his final instructions to his disciples that in his absence they were to, “Go and make disciples of all nations”. He tells them that he is returning to the Father, where he will take up all power and authority as the king of kings, and sit at the right hand of God the Father to be the mediator of the new covenant.
Listen to what St Augustine said about Ascension Day. “This festival confirms the grace of all the festivals together, without which the profitableness of every festival would have perished. For unless the Savior had ascended into heaven, his Nativity would have come to nothing ... his Passion would have borne no fruit for us, and his most holy Resurrection would have been useless.” How guilty are we of not confessing the full gospel when we fail to proclaim what Christ has accomplished for us in the ascension! We boldly declare the critical importance of Christmas, Good Friday and Easter but fail to see that unless Christ has ascended to be with the Father then the Christian hope is incomplete.
After Christ’s ascension, the angels ask the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? 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) Jesus’ 40 days with them ends by his returning to heaven to enter into the glory with the promise that at a future time he will come again.
Paul speaks of Christ’s ascension saying, “Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11) Christ’s ascension is the exclamation mark that gives the Christian hope and assurance.
Ascension Day is followed by Pentecost where the church is birthed as the disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit. It is at Pentecost that the church is fully equipped for the ministry that Jesus called them to, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
Our power, our authority comes from God the Holy Spirit. It does not come from our knowledge or our skill but in Christ’s authority. In the ascension, Christ receives “All authority in heaven and on earth.” (Matthew 28:18) The church now goes forth in Christ’s authority. We have no authority in ourselves; our authority to speak comes from the ascended Christ. That is why Ascension Day is important.
Furthermore, Ascension Day reminds us that the Lord has his arms of blessing raised over us offering us comfort, testifying to us that we are not alone. As we rest in this knowledge, we can turn toward the ascended Jesus, the king of kings, whose nail pierced hands remind us of our hope, “I am with you always...” Simple words that fill us with hope because not only was he raised from the dead, He still lives today!
What does Christ’s ascension mean for us? Those that place their hope in the ascended Lord can rest in the promise that from the Father’s throne he continues to serve us. “Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.” (Hebrews 9:15)