Growing up we always celebrated Ascension Day on Ascension Day, which meant gathering for worship on a Thursday night. Interestingly, we did little for Pentecost and never even mentioned Lent. These days Ascension Day services during the week are fairly rare, and sometimes the ascension gets little more than a passing reference the Sunday before or after even while Pentecost has gained in significance. While I applaud the increased attention Pentecost receives, I think we lose out by lessening emphasis on Ascension Day. We need both, equally.
Ascension and Pentecost are like warm weather and the sun in Michigan or Ontario. You need the sun in order to have the warm weather, and what is the point of warm weather if you don’t have the sun? Ascension and Pentecost are a little more than a week apart, and for us to do justice to either event we need to focus on both.
Ascension Day is the culmination of the incarnation. God made flesh has now returned to heaven. Let us not forget that Christ returns and sits at the right hand of God the Father as a human, having suffered as a human, having experienced hot days and cold nights, hunger, sorrow, ridicule, and death just like all humanity. Who better to understand us and to speak on our behalf to God?
We need Ascension Day to provide us with hope that our own death is not the end of the story. If the incarnate Christ can be raised from the dead and ascend to God’s presence, there is hope that we too one day will find ourselves before God’s throne.
As great as all of this is, Ascension Day without Pentecost would be like telling people who are hungry that there is food available a hundred miles away but not providing them with the means to get there or a way to sustain themselves while they make the journey. It is the Holy Spirit, given at Pentecost, who allows us to connect with Christ, and it is the Holy Spirit who comforts us and sustains us now that Christ is no longer physically present.
But the import of Ascension and Pentecost is even greater. While Ascension Day declares the lordship and sovereignty of Christ, it is Pentecost, the giving of the Holy Spirit, that allows us to join in the work that Christ started while on earth. Just as Abraham was blessed in order to be a blessing, so we have received the Spirit in order to be kingdom builders and shalom bringers. Ascension and Pentecost speak to what we as Christians should be about during this in-between time of awaiting Christ’s return. Ultimately, then, our celebrations of Christ’s ascension and Pentecost should lead us to contemplate God’s mission and how we as individuals, churches, denominations, and the body of Christ worldwide are invited to join in. And as we work to build Christ’s kingdom and look for the flourishing of all people, we will invariably run into issues of injustice that remind us of our need for a Savior—so the Christian year brings us back once again to the baby in the manger.