I first came to the United States in the summer of 1992 to study at Calvin Theological Seminary. Part of the culture shock I encountered was learning about federal holidays. In addition to Labor Day and Memorial Day, I familiarized myself with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents Day, and Columbus Day, during which government offices, banks, and post offices are closed but the seminary holds classes as usual. When spring came, I was expecting that Good Friday and Ascension Day would be federal holidays with no mail delivery. But I was wrong. Those two days came and went as though they were regular days. I was in shock.
Although Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world, Indonesians celebrate Good Friday and Ascension Day, in addition to Christmas and New Year’s Day, as federal or public holidays. Schools, government offices, banks, and most businesses are closed. And because they are public holidays, churches can hold morning services to celebrate those days. This practice, inherited from the Dutch, is the result of Indonesia being a Dutch colony for about 350 years.
For Christians in Indonesia, Ascension Day has always been considered very significant; it ends the Easter season and prepares Christians for the celebration of Pentecost. As an expression of their interpretation of Acts 1:13-14, which indicates that the disciples joined in constant prayer following the ascension of Jesus, many Indonesian churches hold a ten-day prayer meeting on the evenings between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday. After almost twenty years of living in the United States, I still miss this practice.
A Bridge between Easter and Pentecost
Ascension Day holds together the Easter and Pentecost seasons. Not celebrating Ascension Day, as seems to be the case in many Reformed churches in North America, creates a hole in the cycle of the church year. Even if churches cannot celebrate right on the Thursday of Ascension Day, a service on the Sunday after Ascension and before Pentecost that recognizes the significance of Jesus’ ascension helps the congregation to understand God’s redemptive work in their lives. Not remembering Ascension Day means losing the opportunity to apply the teaching of the church’s ecumenical creeds—Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian—to people’s everyday experiences. Churches that neglect to celebrate Ascension Day miss the opportunity to bring the creeds into the life of the congregation.
John Calvin taught that Christ truly inaugurated his kingdom only at his ascension to heaven. Calvin believed that as Christ withdrew his bodily presence from his people, he began to rule heaven and earth with more immediate power. Calvin was also sure that Christ’s spiritual presence could only come after his ascension (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.16.14). He explained that Christ’s ascension to heaven is beneficial to our faith in two ways. First, it opened the way into the heavenly kingdom that had been closed after the fall. And second, Christ in heaven has been our constant advocate and intercessor (2.16.16). By the power of his Spirit, Christ is now present with his people all over the world in his Word and in the sacraments.
Following the creeds, Reformed theology often describes Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in two states: the state of humiliation and the state of exaltation. The state of humiliation includes his incarnation, death, burial, and descent into hell; and the state of exaltation includes his resurrection, ascension, being seated at the right hand of the Father, and the return to judge the living and the dead.
Given the significance of the ascension, it is time to bring the celebration of this event back into the church. Even if no special service or liturgy is used, the church could at least mention the Sunday after Ascension Day—the seventh Sunday after Easter—as Ascension Sunday. This will help the congregation to remember that Ascension is an integral part of the church calendar. The church would be missing a component if Pentecost Sunday were celebrated without recognizing Christ’s ascension.
Include the Creeds
Ascension Sunday is an excellent occasion for including the recitation of one of the ecumenical creeds in the liturgy. Reciting the Apostles’ Creed is simplest, since most of the congregation is familiar with it. However, reading the Nicene Creed or the Athanasian Creed is also appropriate. In that case, a simple explanation printed in the church bulletin or projected on the screen may help people understand the significance of the creed in the history of the Christian church and its role in reminding us of Christ’s ascension to heaven.
The inclusion of the creed on Ascension Sunday serves two purposes. First, it serves to remind the congregation that Christ’s ascension is an important element in the creed. As the congregation reads the creed, they are reminded that Christ’s ascension is as important as his birth (Christmas), his death (Good Friday), his resurrection (Easter) and his second coming. Second, the use of the creed helps the church find a way to return the creed to the liturgy. Since some churches have departed from reading the creeds in their regular worship services, many people have lost their appreciation of the value of the creeds in shaping their faith. They also do not often understand the power of the creeds in carving the landscape of Christian doctrine over the centuries. Using the creed on this particular Sunday helps bridge this gap.
In keeping with what the disciples did in Acts 1, and in communion with many Christians in Indonesia, churches in all parts of the world could make Ascension Sunday a special day of prayer to help congregations prepare themselves for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost on the following Sunday. Perhaps a ten-day prayer meeting would be less than practical in the North American context. But certainly churches could include a time in the liturgy of Ascension Sunday to allow the congregation to pray fervently for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and to help them see more clearly their place in the drama of redemption.