Ascension Thursday—Another Day to Keep on Your Calendar

Craig St. John / March 21, 2018
Holy Days

The following was written as part of our Lent series and was initially posted on March 21, 2018 and is being reposted today, May 10, 2018, in light of Ascension Thursday.

By Craig St. John

Think of time you have spent anticipating or preparing for something. Many of you are parents. Recall the nine months spent leading up to the amazing moment of seeing and holding your child for the first time. A greater number of you either have been or currently are students. Though we all hope to be lifelong learners, even those with multiple graduate degrees move on from being formal students at some point. And we normal people can’t wait to be done with school for good. Education is intended to prepare us for what we’ll spend the rest of our lives doing. Both pregnancy and formal education are means to an end.

Though there are of course worthy exceptions (these are merely illustrations), most parents don’t reach the end of a nine-month gestation period, quickly celebrate their child’s birth, and then go on to a life of non-parenting. Similarly, most students don’t study hard for four, eight, twelve years, get their diploma(s), and then never make use of their degree(s) (OK, maybe there are a lot more exceptions here). But you get the point. As important as these periods of preparation, development, growth, and anticipation are, the greatest amount of attention should be on what comes next. This is a good reminder as we are in the midst of our reflection during the forty days of Lent, leading up to Easter. As important as the means of preparation might be, the end is far more critical.

As we’ve gone through our Lenten blog series, we’ve covered topics such as why we observe Lent to begin with, and more broadly, reasons to follow the church calendar, including days not as widely observed within evangelicalism, like Ash Wednesday. Most of us have always celebrated Christmas and Easter, but it’s largely only a recent trend that some evangelical churches include the periods leading up to these highly commercialized holidays, Advent and Lent, respectively.

These several week times of anticipation and preparation serve to help deepen our affection for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ as we meditate on the great events of his Incarnation and Resurrection, as well as his Second Coming, which we still long for. And the progress lower church traditions have made by adding these periods of increased reflection is notable. However, there are still roughly 42 weeks left in the year without such structured rhythms.

Once December 26th rolls around, long lines of ungrateful consumers form at retail return counters, and folks are hastily planning their New Year’s Eve parties. Even with observing Advent, Christmas has come and gone. While we may sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” leading up to December 25th, little do we realize that these days actually refer to the season of Christmastide, in which the Church has historically held a sustained celebration of Christ’s birth until Epiphany, on January 6th. Any excitement and anticipation we developed over the season quickly fizzles out on Christmas Day, right after the leftover turkey is placed in Tupperware and the overlooked pieces of wrapping paper are thrown away.

A quick six weeks later (more or less, depending on the year), Lent begins. Even with a dedicated forty days of fasting, prayer, meditation, and preparation—which indeed should be commended—the celebration of the climax of God’s redemptive story, Christ’s resurrection, dies down as the ham gets cold and all the kids are in candy comas. As with Christmastide, many of us are probably unaware of Eastertide, a period much longer than twelve days. This is a fifty-day season extending until Pentecost Sunday, which is May 20th this year. Pentecost comes from a Greek word literally meaning “fiftieth.” In the Old Testament, we read of the Feast of Weeks, Day of First Fruits, (Nm. 28:26–31), or Feast of Harvest (Ex. 23:16), which were all later known as Pentecost, as the feast was first celebrated by the Israelites fifty days after Passover. And then in the New Testament, we read of the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles (and 108ish others) and Peter’s powerful sermon, culminating in the salvation of 3,000 in one day (Acts 2:1–41), which is what the Church celebrates each Pentecost Sunday.

The primary focus of this post, however, is another unfortunately overlooked holy day, Ascension Thursday (May 10th this year), occurring ten days prior to Pentecost, forty days after Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 1:3). In Acts 1:6–11, we read that after promising the great charismatic events of Pentecost and then commissioning his disciples, Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). This notion of being “lifted up,” is what the Church has referred to as the Ascension of Jesus.

John writes about this same concept, only using a different Greek word for “lift up” than Luke (ὑψόω/hupsoō instead of ἐπαίρω/epairō). Using the former word on five occasions in his gospel, John employs one of his favorite literary devices, the double entendre (or triple), to cast light on the three great events of Christ that procured salvation for the cosmos: his Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension (see being “lifted up” on the cross, from the grave, and into glory in 3:14, 8:28, and 12:32–34). The word for “lift up,” preferred by John, hupsoō, can also mean “exalt” or “set on high,” and when used by Luke, it carries that very sense (see Acts. 2:33, 5:31). This event of the Ascension that the Church celebrates is more than Christ merely being lifted up to heaven, as miraculous as that is.[1] We are also celebrating that Jesus has been “exalted at the right hand of God” (Acts 2:33) and “exalted…at (the Father’s) right hand as Leader and Savior” (Acts 5:31).

A couple weeks ago, Riccardo preached on Ephesians 1:15–23, which includes what is likely the development of an early creedal formula cited by the Paul in vv. 20–23. Related to this topic, Paul wrote after Christ’s resurrection that God the Father…

seated (Jesus) at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Eph. 1:20–21).

We noted in our study guide for the series that while the Crucifixion and Resurrection are, no doubt, included within the focus of God’s saving power, in Ephesians anyway, Paul zeros in on his Ascension (p. 72). This makes one wonder why if Ascension Thursday exists at all on a particular church’s liturgical calendar, it is almost completely eclipsed by Good Friday and Easter. In all actuality, most of us probably never stop to meditate on this incredible, sustained event.

King Jesus being seated at the right hand of the Father in power and glory, a doctrine also known as the Session of Christ, is more than enough reason to celebrate. Consider the weight Paul gives this in Ephesians. Christ is raised above absolutely everything. He reigns with the greatest degree of power and might possible. Meditate on this fact for a moment. It’s easy enough to take the Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter events for granted. But think deeply about what actually happened in these critical chapters of the drama of redemption. God himself, the Second Person of the Trinity, in the greatest kenotic act in history, willingly left the comforts of heaven to put on human flesh and dwell among sin, death, and entropy (Jn. 1:14)—the way things weren’t supposed to be. He faced the same temptations of idolatry and pleasure of the flesh we all face, and yet, unlike Adam, he did not succumb to them (Hb. 4:15), while most of us would consider the simple act of denying our carnal desires as suffering. And then, after being the perfect, spotless sacrifice (1 Pt. 1:19), he actually did suffer, in the worst possible way, leading up to his death, for the sake of the cosmos (Col. 1:20).

But even in his life and death alone, Jesus’ mission would not be accomplished. The same Holy Spirit who created with him and the Father (Gn. 1:2; Jn. 1:3) and sustained him in his earthly ministry (Lk. 4:1) raised him from the dead (Rom. 8:11). And he wasn’t only resuscitated; he was resurrected—given a recognizable body with at least some degree of continuity to his old one (Jn. 20:11–28), and yet it was also a brand-new body that will never fall victim to the effects of the fall (1 Cor. 15:42).

But even then, if he had continued his earthly reign bodily on earth, that would not have been enough. For one, Jesus told his disciples that it was to their benefit that he returned to his Father; otherwise, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit would not have happened (Jn. 14:7). Without Christmas, there’d be no Good Friday. Without Good Friday, there’d be no Easter. Without Easter, there’d be no Ascension Thursday. Without Ascension Thursday, there’d be no Pentecost Sunday. And with any of these pieces missing, salvation would not only be incomplete, it would be impossible. With the Spirit ministering below and the Son reigning at the right hand of the Father on high, the perfect plan for the Triune involvement in the unfolding saga of redemption will meet its perfect end.

At our current place in the story, Christ reigns in his heavenly session, as head over all, including forces of evil (Eph. 1:22, 6:12), until he again descends bodily, the same way he ascended (Acts 1:11). First, the great promise from Gen. 3:15 will be fulfilled: Jesus will crush Satan’s head (Rev. 20:10), and death, mourning, crying, and pain will be no more, and he will dwell bodily with our resurrected selves forever (Rev. 21:3-4). The world will not only again be the way it was intended to be, it will be far greater (Rev. 21:22–27). But as for today, let us not forget our present place as we annually observe the magnificent chapters in the story of cosmic redemption. Christ has been exalted on high and is reigning from above right now. This is why the Church celebrates Ascension Thursday.

Though we as a local extension of Christ’s Church don’t have anything formally planned for Ascension Thursday, take some time on May 10th to meditate on the glory of our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the name above all names. By the great power of his reign and the promise of his ultimate victory, evil forces and effects of the fall, whether physical or spiritual, do not have the final say. Hate and racism do not have the last word. Cancer and AIDS do not have the last word. Greed, poverty, and homelessness do not have the last word. Natural disasters do not have the last word. Infidelity and no fault divorce do not have the last word—there will only be the faithful bride of Christ. Gun violence, genocide, and war do not have the last word. Addiction, depression, and suicide do not have the last word. Abortion, eugenics, and infanticide do not have the last word. Misogyny, abuse, sex trafficking, and rape culture do not have the last word. Each of these things, and so many more, all of which can only lead to death, will be no more.

So, while it’s still Lent, while we’re still in a period of preparation and anticipation, let us indeed live in this moment—the moment where we not only replay and celebrate the previous chapter, Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection, but also anticipate the next chapter, Christ’s Parousia, his Second Advent. Means indeed lead to an end, the perfect end, a divine telos. But in the meantime, let’s not neglect both recitation of the current chapter and being a part of what’s still being written. Let’s live by the power of the ascended, exalted, and reigning Lord, as citizens of his Kingdom, which has already long been coming.

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[1] Christ wasn’t the first to be “lifted up” absent from death (see Enoch in Gn. 5:24 and Elijah in 2 Kings 2:1). Of course, a notable difference here is that these men didn’t die, while Christ did, and then he ascended in his resurrected body.

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