In Praise of the Ascension
The great Anglican priest and preacher, John Stott, once lamented that the Church had decided to speak of Jesus’ entry into heaven as the Feast of the Ascension. It would be more biblical, insisted Stott, to speak instead of the Feast of the Exaltation of Christ. Just as Jesus was raised from the dead by the Father, so too was he taken up into heaven by the Father. Both of these events testify not to the extraordinary power of Jesus, but rather to his complete fidelity and obedience to his Father’s will. Forty days after Easter, God the Father exalted Jesus above all and enthroned him as Lord over all. He is now eternally seated at the right hand of his Father in heaven, and from his throne he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
By reflecting upon the meaning of this exaltation, rather than fixating on themes of leave-taking and departure, it seems to me that we might avoid certain problems that routinely crop up in our sermons and conversations concerning the Ascension. In my own denomination, for instance, I’ve noticed our language about the Ascension inevitably prioritizes Jesus’ supposed absence in the wake of the event. Quite often, our sermons and blog posts are peppered with plaintive sentences which suggest that the feast invites us into an experience of loss rather than praise. Jesus has returned. Jesus has departed. Jesus has gone ahead of us. Jesus has withdrawn for our own benefit. I’ve heard and read all of these mournful phrases before, and yes, I admit that I’ve even used some of them myself.
But this Ascension Day, I intend to repent. I’m increasingly convinced this way of speaking misses the point of the Feast entirely. We must remember that Jesus Christ did not ascend to fulfill his own will; Jesus Christ was lifted up in the power and presence of the Spirit in order to satisfy the Father’s saving will towards all Creation. Jesus Christ, the only and eternal Son of God, has not taken his leave. He has truly been exalted unto the ages of ages. He has not withdrawn from the world. He is reigning over it. He has not stepped back so we can take his place. He has stepped into his rightful place, and he now speaks to us with unmistakable authority as our Savior and Lord.
These truths have practical implications for the present moment. The ascended Jesus continues to be the bodily and living Jesus. The exalted Jesus is the Jesus who is empowered to act and judge and speak into our lives right now. In this way, the Ascension testifies primarily to Jesus’ ongoing presence, not his absence. Because Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, we can never be far from him. He has, in point of fact, ascended so that he might draw even nearer to us. He has been exalted in order to make his power and glory more fully and completely known.
St. Augustine, as usual, understands these truths better than most, and he gives to us these encouraging words from an Ascension Day sermon he preached to his own 5th century congregation.
My brothers and sisters, today our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven; let our hearts ascend with him. For just as Christ remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though the fullness of what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies.
For Christ is even now exalted above the heavens, but he still suffers on earth all the pain that we, the members of his body, have to bear. Christ showed this when he cried out from above: Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? And when Christ said: I was hungry and you gave me food.
Why is it then, that we here on earth do not strive to find rest with Christ in heaven right now, through the faith, hope and love that unites us to him? While in heaven Christ is also with us; and while on earth we are also with him. Christ is here with us on earth by his divinity, his power and his love. We cannot be in heaven as he is by divinity or by power, but in him and through him, we can be there even now by love.