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)

The Big Picture

One criterion to apply to worship in any congregation, regardless of the liturgical style it embraces, is that of historical remembrance and proclamation: Does worship proclaim the whole sweep of divine activity past, present, and future? Does worship induct participants into a cosmology in which God is at work faithfully in continuity with past divine action? Does worship convey a sense of hope for the future grounded in God’s faithful action in the past? For comfortable North American worshipers and worship leaders today, the great temptation is to slip into expressions of petition, thanksgiving, and proclamation that are nearly exclusively focused on the present moment. Perhaps this is an inevitable result of lives and churches that are content with the status quo. Our songs, prayers, and sermons emphasize God’s immediate goodness and even the vitality of our intimate experience of God. For us to experience the riches of fully biblical worship, our prayer, praise, and proclamation should be carried out as if we stand before a cosmic time line of God’s actions, fully aware of divine faithfulness from the creation of the world to its full re-creation in Christ. It is this vast and specific awareness that grounds our hope when days are difficult and that leads us beyond the immediate concerns of our little egocentric worlds.

—John D. Witvliet, “The Former Prophets and the Practice of Christian Worship” in Worship Seeking Understanding, 36

Job Description for Pastoral Musicians

• Frame songs as acts of joyful, life-giving resistance to idolatry. Teach us that songs are an antidote to exploitation and depersonalization.

• Learn to study the Scripture texts in, around, and under the songs you love.

• Do not become so attached to subversion for its own sake that you fail to recognize genuine, covenantal, Christ-shaped forms of subversion. Cultivate the radical theological imagination needed for that discernment.

• Teach us by example what it means to sing as gift and gifting—each song a gift, each singing of a song a gift, each song a witness to gift and giving, each singer a gift in the giving.

• Devote attention to songs that convey the weightiness and hope of hesed, God’s tenacious, covenantal solidarity and loving-kindness.

• Rescue chestnuts from the dustbin of sentimentality. Resist kitsch.

• Pay attention to context—the unique context of each Scripture text, the unique context in which each song was born, the unique context in which it will be sung today.

• Choose not only songs that express what a community already experiences but also songs that will stretch a community toward ever deeper obedience to God, ever more vivid ways of imagining God’s covenantal love and fidelity.

—John Witvliet, “Foreword,” in Walter A. Brueggemann, A Glad Obedience: Why and What We Sing (Kindle Locations 76-95)

Failed Song

. . . the habit so many communities have . . . of taking world-upending, astonishment-inducing texts and then rendering them with music that is utterly conventional and ultimately sentimental.

—John Witvliet, “Foreword,” in Walter A. Brueggemann, A Glad Obedience: Why and What We Sing (Kindle Locations 93-94)

Guarding the The Church’s Song

Be vigilant to fight the commodification of the church’s song. Resist anything that blunts the fullness of the Christian gospel. Do not squelch the dimly burning wicks of voices at the margins whose songs may not otherwise be heard. Resist cultural imperialism. Embrace ways of creating, curating, receiving, and singing songs that demonstrate the shalom of God’s way in the world.

—John Witvliet, “Foreword,” in Walter A. Brueggemann, A Glad Obedience: Why and What We Sing (Kindle Locations 99-102)