Like most of you, I awake to a set of headlines designed to –
-raise our anger-“Democrats, Do Your Damn Duty and Impeach Trump” or “Shame on Robert Mueller”
-raise our fears-“Stuck Weather Pattern Fuels Month of Mayhem” or “Clouds Hang Over World Economy”
-raise my frustration-“Paddack, Bats Have Trouble in the Bronx” (Come on, Padres!)
Another day coping with the mess. Most are unaware that this is actually a holiday (a.k.a. holy day). The paper is delivered. The mail will come by noon. School is in session. Every store I am aware of will be open. People are at work (some anyway).
You would not know it is Ascension Day. It’s nowhere to be found in the news. It never seems to make the news. But I can’t be too critical. At one time, it was lost on me as well.
I was a pastor in Holland, living near the North Sea. It was May 12th, the fortieth day after Easter, and I and my family were enjoying the holiday. In Europe, this day is observed, though “observed” is way too generous a term. It was a brilliant (and rare) sunny day on the coast, and we were there with the rest of Western Europe. Like most Europeans, I was not paying attention to the fact that this was a “holy day” going all of the way back to the 4th century. I was not trained to observe it because, in my American culture, it isn’t even on the calendar!
In what can only be described as a rebuke of the Spirit, I sensed God grabbing hold of me and forcefully speaking something of these words—“What are you doing? Pastors—and parishioners—particularly those who have some semblance of respect for the Word and love for Jesus–should be doing more than laying on beaches, taking in the sea breeze, and snacking on Doritos on Ascension Day!” These kind of experiences come with the clerical territory.
Ascension Day has been referred to as the “Poor Cousin” in the family of the work of God. It is the most under-celebrated event in the church calendar. After Advent and Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and Easter, Pentecost and Ascension seem to be relegated to honorable mention. And it is to our great loss. For something very significant must be celebrated today—and every day—but especially this day.
The next year in Europe, I remembered. One can only take so many divine correctives. We celebrated this part of the church calendar in our international church and did it every year. It was not standing room only, but the few who came began to discover what we had missed for so many years.
This is the day that commemorates the moment Christ, forty days after his resurrection, rose to heaven in the presence of his disciples. His work on earth was finished, but we might be missing that it doesn’t mean his work stopped. He is now hidden, but it does not mean he is no longer present. And because of this, as Russell Moore so wonderfully puts it in his morning blog, “that ought to free us from worry.”
Christ has ascended to advocate for us, 24/7. It means we have someone who pleads our case before the Father. He breaks the barriers, opens up access to us, and stands with us. His scars declare that the price has been paid for all of our sins—past, present, future. They give him the right to plead for our forgiveness whenever there is sin. And that’s critical, because we sin, as well as live in a world of condemnation. Our conscience, our critics, our detractors, our enemies, the demons of hell—along with an adversary all seek to gang up on us every day.
Even better, the ascension of Jesus means he lives to make intercession. This means we never are alone when we pray. Jesus lives to intervene, petition the one predisposed to provide good things. He lives to act in our favor. More than access, it means we have assurance. We can even approach God with brazen confidence.
Today we also celebrate—we should celebrate—that he lives to empower us. Jesus’ entrance into heaven served notice that he has triumphed over the principalities and powers (Democrats and Republicans). He presently is “moving history along,” ruling the universe, transfusing us with power, quickening us to spirituality, sanctifying us by his Spirit, restraining the evil one, and empowering us for ministry, all merely by a word. As Moore puts it, “We are not at the whim of these dark social and political forces around us. God has raised Jesus, and ‘seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above every rule and authority and power and dominion’…The tomb is empty, but the throne is not.”
So go ahead–leave work early. Celebrate. This is right up there with Easter.