Celebrating the Ascension

Ten Reasons to Celebrate Ascension Day

1. The ascension of Jesus testifies that what we can perceive with our five physical senses is only part of the splendor God has envisioned for us—while doing nothing to denigrate the beauty of our bodily experience of the world around us.

2. The ascension of Jesus gives us language to speak about both Jesus’ absence and presence—his absence from us in the body, and his presence with us through the Holy Spirit. Being honest about Jesus’ absence is the first step to being open to God’s empowering presence with us in the Holy Spirit.

3., The ascension of Jesus depicts the boundary between earth and heaven as permeable. Our prayers cross over this boundary, Jesus’ resurrected body passes through this boundary, and—one day—so will ours.

4. The ascension of Jesus changes how we visualize heaven. It pictures heaven as a place in which resurrected bodies belong. Heaven is not just ethereal and vaporous.

5. The ascension of Jesus changes how we visualize Jesus today. As you read this, in the present tense, Jesus is not passive, but active. Jesus is praying for us (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 24-25). Jesus is sending the Spirit. Having prepared a place for us, Jesus is actively waiting for us.

6. The ascension of Jesus helps us see lordship and sovereignty as good and gracious. In this sad world, power is equated with bullying or coercive force. In contrast, fusing the words “reigning Lord” and “Jesus Christ” transforms our understanding of power and helps us envision the kind of power that is purely good and altogether lifegiving.

7. The ascension of Jesus changes our picture of suffering. The ascension of Jesus helps us see that heaven is a place that is not indifferent to human suffering (Heb. 4:14-16). This calls us to embrace the overlapping rhythms of worship, pastoral care, and justice. Ascension Day is a profound resource for addressing deep pastoral needs—for those who struggle with depression, guilt, shame, burnout, shallowness, and conflict; for those who are persecuted; for victims of war and violence; for victims of abuse and tragedy.

8. The ascension of Jesus can prevent us from over-identifying with everyday reality. The ascension “sets our minds on things above” (Col. 3:1), and reminds us that our citizenship is in heaven. This, in turn, teaches us to invest deeply in our work and daily life, but to hold on to it loosely. It gives us a basis for passionate living that is graced by freedom, not grasping; invitation, not control.

9. Ascension teaches us a lot about ultimate desire, the kind of soul-aching desire that drives so much of our human striving. It reminds us that our ultimate desires cannot be satisfied with life as we know it, that ultimately all God’s saints long for “a better country” (Heb. 11:16).

10. Ascension humbles us. It shows us how limited our minds, imaginations, and words really are. It teaches us to ground our worship in doxology: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!”

—John Witvliet (originally published in Reformed Worship 115, March 2015)

Thinking in a Trinitarian Way

The idea of a Trinity Sunday [June 16 this year] is not a bad idea, so long as it is not seen as an excuse for only “doing the Trinity’ once a year. It is good to have a regular Trinitarian adrenalin rush in our churches. After all, preaching about the Trinity is simply saying to the Lord’s people, ‘Behold your God!’ and declaring the wonders of the Lord of creation and salvation. . . . Sermons and talks, whether on topics or specific biblical texts, need to seek to bring out the roles of the different persons of the Trinity. They need to make explicit the dynamic connections between the persons of the Trinity and move back and forth between the Three and the One. This can be done in an evangelistic sermon as well as in a talk on ecology, the cross, caring for our neighbour, walking worthy of the Lord, Christian hope or whatever. My contention is that regular exposure to such an overt Trinitarian syntax will shape Christians who learn to think in a Trinitarian way, relate to God in a Trinitarian way and read Scripture in a Trinitarian way.

Robin Parry, Worshiping Trinity, 168-9

Every Time and Place Holy to the Lord

The transition from worship under the old covenant to worship under the new is not characterized by a move from the formal to the spiritual, or from the cultus to the spiritual, or from the cultus to all of life. For it has always been necessary to love God wholly; it has always been necessary to recognize the sheer holiness and transcendent power and glory and goodness of God and to adore him for what He is.  So we insist that “all true worship is God centered.” The transition from worship under the old covenant to worship under the new is characterized by the covenantal stipulations and provisions of two respective covenants.

The way wholly loving God works out under the old covenant is in heartfelt obedience to the terms of that covenant and that includes the primary place given to the cultus with all its import and purpose in the stream of redemptive history; and the implications of this outworking include distinctions between the holy and the common, between holy space and common space, between holy time and common time, between holy food and common food.

The way wholly loving God works out under the new covenant is in heartfelt obedience to the terms of that covenant, and here the language of the cultus has been transmuted to all of life, with the implication, not so much of a desacralization of space and time and food, as with a sacralization of all space and all time and all food. [1 Corinthians 10:31]

—D. A. Carson, Worship by the Book, 40

On Sunday

The earliest documents mention that Christians meet statu die—on a fixed day—and nothing in the long history of Christianity could alter the importance of this fixed day.

If Christianity were a purely “spiritual” and eschatological faith there would have been no need for a “fixed day,” because mysticism has no interest in time. To save one’s soul one needs, indeed, no “calendar.” And if Christianity were but a new “religion,” it would have established its calendar, with the usual opposition between the “holy days” and the “profane days”—those to be “kept” and “observed” and those religiously insignificant. Both understandings did in fact appear later. But this was not at all the original meaning of the “fixed day.” It was not meant to be a “holy day” opposed to profane ones, a commemoration in time of a past event. Its true meaning was in the transformation of time, not of calendar.  For, on the one hand, Sunday remained one of the days (for more than three centuries it was not even a day of rest), the first of the week, fully belonging to this world.  Yet on the other hand, on that day, through the eucharistic ascension, the Day of the Lord was revealed and manifested in all its glory and transforming power as the end of this world, as the beginning of the world to come. And thus through that one day all days, all time were transformed into times of remembrance and expectation, remembrance of the ascension, (“we have seen the true light”) and expectation of its coming. All days, all hours were now referred to this end of all “natural” life, to the beginning of the new life. The week was no longer a sequence of “profane” days, with rest on the “sacred” day at their end. . . . Sunday . . . was not a “sacred” day to be “observed” apart from all other days and opposed to them. It did not interrupt time with a “timeless” mystical ecstasy. It was not a “break” in an otherwise meaningless sequence of days and nights. By remaining one of the ordinary days, and yet by revealing itself through the Eucharist as the eighth and first day, it gave all days their true meaning. It made the time of this world a time of the end, and it made it also the time of the beginning.

—Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, 51-52