Strange! We blow out all the stops celebrating Christmas—even though the Bible is mum on the time of year that Jesus began the humbling business of becoming our servant. And every year we fling open our church doors on Good Friday to celebrate how Jesus went through hell for us on the cross. But when Ascension Day, the crowning event of Jesus' ministry, comes around, Reformed worshipers increasingly keep the large oak doors firmly bolted.
We celebrate on a weekday that Jesus became a baby. We celebrate that Jesus died and rose again. But that Jesus ascended to heaven and became Lord of the whole universe and poured out his good gifts, including his everlasting-life-giving Spirit, on all believers—those things can no longer incite us to exchange our channel changers and garden tools for hymn books. Only a handful of believers still trickle into church to appropriately dignify Christ's coronation. What's happened?
Honoring Our Lord
You won't find any reference to Ascension Day in Eerdmans' ever-popular Handbook to the History of Christianity. It doesn't even receive as much as a footnote in Williston Walker's A History of the Christian Church, even though that study is so exhaustive that it tells us more stuff about church history than anyone could possibly care to know. What we do know is that already in the third century A.D. Christian churches began to celebrate the "fifty day festival of Easter" (The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, The Liturgical Press, p. 375)—although a flap arose over exactly when to celebrate the festival, since Eastern and Western churches used different calendars. Celebration of Ascension Day, the fortieth day within that fifty-day period didn't catch on until the fourth century. It became widely popular in the churches throughout the Middle Ages and is still celebrated in the Catholic tradition as we speak.
The Protestant churches had mixed emotions about the practice. Reformers like Calvin wanted to banish all such feast-day observances, arguing that we should be celebrating the birth, resurrection, and ascension of Christ every day of our lives, and in worship every Sunday of the year. However, as a concession to the governing authorities who wanted to keep those occasions as civic holidays, the Reformers relented and allowed the practice to continue. But Ascension Day, along with all the other Christian festive days, was swept out of Britain by the austerity of Cromwell's Puritanism. While a large number of Presybterians have long since reintroduced many of these holy days, Ascension Day is usually not among them.
The Synod of Dort commended the practice of gathering the faithful for worship on the feast days to the Reformed churches of Europe. It did this by concession. It argued that it wouldn't hurt to turn the citizenry from their idle pursuits on these civic holidays. Better to have them cool their heels and warm their hearts in church than in the bars. Since that time many Reformed churches across the globe have developed a (more?) genuine sensitivity to the Tightness of gathering to worship our Lord on the day he exchanged his servant outfit for royal robes of heavenly splendor.
In the last few decades, however, Reformed Christians have retained the practice in theory, but in reality have voted it out with their feet. Why this decline of Ascension? Maybe because it comes so soon after Lent and Easter that we're celebrated out. Maybe because the church season is over by then. But I suspect the major reason is that we're being pulled along by our culture. Creches, Santas, and Easter bunnies provide endearing amusements that our culture advertises to a fault. So the media hype makes us see Christmas and Easter as important events. But there's not much of a market for a risen Lord or for a heavenly kingdom that will give this tired, over-commercialized planet of ours a healthy heavenly shake.
Instead of setting the agenda for our culture, Christians yield to this secular calendar by default—much as the Reformers did, but now in reverse. Our society (still) gladly rings our wake-up bell for Christmas and Easter, as long as it can unload some children's toys and Easter eggs on us. In lockstep we're all too happy to stuff Jesus back into the manger, drag him through Jerusalem's streets, and nail him back on the cross. But without a whimper we give up on celebrating what should be the highlight of those yearly remembering exercises: the reality that Jesus no longer fits in any of those places here below. He's grown too big for them now! Even heaven cannot hold our Lord's majesty, splendor, and empowering love. Because our Brother-in-the-flesh ascended, his leadership, gifts, and Spirit flood our lives as well. So where's the feast?
What Can We Do?
Here are some ideas for reaffirming and reinvigo-rating this very meaningful, ancient tradition.
Celebrate Ascension Day on the Sunday before Pentecost. If your church still gathers on Thursday evening, make John Calvin happy and move your observance up three days, to Sunday morning. If you've already made that move, don't try to switch it back in the name of historical accuracy. Remember how you felt when you threw a big bash and only a few people showed up? Quality may be more important than quantity, but an Ascension Day service needs to be packed with people. Maybe someday we'll get it really right. Until we do, Sunday morning allows us to create the most appropriate worship setting for bringing honor and glory to King Jesus.
In your Ascension Day service involve Christian artists, musicians, dramatists, storytellers, poets, and dancers. Celebrate the rich variety of gifts our King gives us, and use these gifts to return praise and glory to him.
Expand your celebration to the week between Ascension and Pentecost. It's a great time to plan festive, significant weekday events. Your regular church season is probably rolled up by then. And the "downtime" of summer has not yet completely settled in. In keeping with the theme of honoring Christ's kingship in our lives, you could focus on your congregation's efforts to extend the kingdom of God:
- Put on a church-based event inviting Christian artists to display their work.
- Offer a Discover Your Gifts seminar.
- Organize a ministries fair inviting ministry groups to set up displays and exhibits in the fellowship hall.
- Dream up an event to highlight Christian education.
- Schedule a social action/justice event everyone can get involved in.
- Provide a stewardship seminar.
Encourage households to celebrate Ascension Day evening. Drop all church activities for that evening, and provide a festive worship/devotional guide for in-house use. Alternatively, arrange for the small groups to meet for an evening of worship, fellowship, and fun. Maybe include a white-elephant gift exchange or... ?
Plan your Ascension Day service to introduce Jesus to your neighbors who do not know who he really is. Let the whole service tell them in a high-energy kind of way that he is Lord . . . even over steel-string guitars and drum sets.
Two Models for Services Celebrating Ascension Day
These services were prepared for Ascension Day by the worship team of the First Christian Reformed Church of Langley, British Columbia.
Call to Worship: Psalm 47:1-2, 5-6
Hymn: "Nations, Clap Your Hands" PsH 47
Scripture: Isaiah 9:6
[read as introduction to next song]
Hymn: "You Are the King of Glory" arr. 1986 C & G Reinders
Call to Confession: Revelation 1:17-18; 3:19-20
Prayer of Confession
Assurance of Pardon: Revelation 3:21-22
Hymn: "Alleluia! Sing to Jesus" PsH 406, PH 144, TH 346
Directives for Living: Ephesians 4:1-16
Hymn: "Christ Is Alive! Let Christians Sing" PsH 413, PH 108
The Word for Children: "Gone for Good?"
Hymn: "He Is Lord" PsH 633
Prayer for Illumination
Scripture Reading: Acts 1:1-11
Text: Luke 24:50-53
Sermon: A Blessed Departure
Hymn: "Crown Him with Many Crowns" PsH« 410, PH 151, RL 295, TH 600
Parting Hymn: "Through Our God" Renewel! 262
We Honor Our Ascended Lord
Gathering Hymn: "Crown Him with Many Crowns"
PsH 410, PH 151, EL 295, TH 600
Welcome and Greeting
We Greet Each Other
Songs of Praise
"There's a River of Life" Maranatha! Music Praise Chorus Book, 57
"You Are Crowned with Many Crowns" Mranatha! Music Praise Chorus Book 2nd edition, 190
"Blessed be Your Holy Name" Worship Songs of the Vineyard vol. 1, 10
"Lord, I Lift Your Name on High" (see box)
"I Lift Your Name" Maranatha! Music Praise Chorus Book 3rd edition, 54
We Celebrate His Victory
The Word for Children: "Who Do We Want in the Driver's Seat?"
Prayer for Understanding
Bible Reading: 1 John 5:1-12; Matthew 28:16-20
Sermon: "You Win!"
We Recognize His Sovereignty
Songs of Adoration
"All Heaven Declares" Renew! l63
"I Love You, Lord" Renew! 36
Parting Song: "Salvation Belongs to Our God" Praise Worship vol. 3, 249