Q Why does Ascension Day matter? We don’t celebrate it anymore, and I need to give my congregation a better rationale for why we should. By the way, they don’t have patience for a treatise on the matter. I need short, pithy explanations.
A lot is at stake here! This is not a task to take lightly. But with the help of friends and colleagues, I offer this draft of ten reasons for celebrating Ascension Day. I welcome your suggestions for refining this list.
All ten of these reasons are based on the conviction that Ascension Day is a kind of “worldview tonic for the Christian imagination.” It offers us not merely thoughts to think, but a way to see deeply into the nature of ultimate reality. Celebrating Jesus’ ascension helps us to more faithfully visualize the unseen reality all around us in ways that are consistent with the Bible’s teaching.
Ten Reasons to Celebrate Ascension Day
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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!”
In sum, Ascension Day, which has been tragically neglected, may actually be one of the most potent biblical worldview-healing interventions of all. Neglecting it may be as foolish as trying to live with near-sightedness without eyeglasses or contacts.
But there are challenges! If Ascension is really a worldview tonic, then simply teaching or preaching about it occasionally is insufficient. It is a view of the world that needs to be deeply absorbed. It is a view of the world that needs to be contemplated and savored, sung and storied. And that requires time and attention.
After reviewing two passionate books by Gerrit Dawson and Peter Atkins on the subject (Dawson’s Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation, and Atkins’ Ascension Now: Implications of Christ’s Ascension for Today’s Church), I am starting to wonder if we should change Ascension Day and Pentecost from two single-day celebrations only occasionally remembered into a summer-long season of renewal.
What would it be like to think of your summer worship season as “The Season of Ascension and Pentecost”? What about accepting the discipline of singing one Ascension song and one Pentecost song in each service for the entire summer? What about commissioning artwork in multiple media to explore these worldview transformations? What about beginning every pastoral prayer—in both public worship and in personal pastoral encounters—by calling to mind Jesus’ ascended body?