Ascension: To Do or Not to Do
Reformed Worship editors asked a few subscribers the following questions about the significance of Ascension Day and how it should be acknowledged in our worship.
- How significant is Ascension Day for the church?
- How much attention should it receive in our worship? Should there be a worship service on Ascension Day? Incorporated into worship the Sunday before or after? Or something else?
Here are the responses of Pastor Eric Dirksen and Professor of Christian Worship Rod Snaterse.
How would you answer these questions?
The significance of Christ’s ascension for the church is difficult to overstate, so it is remarkable how seemingly little attention it receives. Without the ascension of Jesus, his resurrection is not implemented, Pentecost doesn’t happen, and the powder keg that is the mission of the church doesn’t explode. Ascension Day is the ideal opportunity to reflect on part of the prayer Jesus taught us: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). The ascension not only gives voice to our longing for heaven and earth to meet, but insists that in Jesus they have met and now continue to meet in the church.
Therefore, failing to call attention to Ascension Day specifically is to further confuse our often muddled perspectives on heaven and earth, the resurrection from the dead, and what the Christian life looks like now. While these themes are consistent in Christian worship throughout the year (one would hope), the gift of the liturgical calendar is to highlight them regularly as opposed to intermittently. Marking Ascension Day either on the day itself or the Sunday immediately following is simply the most coherent way to tell the old, old story. Why wouldn’t we?
- Atkins, Peter. Ascension Now: Implications of Christ’s Ascension for Today’s Church. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2001.
- Donne, Brian K. Christ Ascended: A Study in the Significance of the Ascension of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. Exeter, UK: Paternoster Press, 1983.
- Dawson, Gerritt Scott. Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2004.
- Webber, Robert E. Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008.
Theologian Robert E. Webber often affirmed that Christian worship does God’s story—the whole story. Yet in his final book, Webber lamented the fragmentation and reduction of redemptive history in the worship of the church. He wrote, “The fullness of the gospel, the story which worship does, has been lost” (Webber, 40). Fragmentation, he insisted, “plagues the church and especially its worship”— “[emphasizing] one or another aspect of God’s story but [neglecting] the story as a whole” (Webber, 41). One pivotal and commonly overlooked aspect of God’s story is the ascension of Christ.
Christ’s ascension, while neglected by many pastors and theologians, has significant theological, liturgical, and eschatological implications for the people of God. Often overshadowed by the more popular notion of resurrection, the ascension is pivotal to the Christ event and cannot be divorced from the greater gospel story. It is not merely a piece of the redemptive puzzle. On the contrary, the ascension communicates the fullness of the gospel of reconciliation, pointing to and revealing the ultimate will and purpose of the triune God. The message that Christ rules with power and authority at the right hand of his Father and that he bears our humanity in heaven is not a mere appendix. His exaltation, glorification, and heavenly ministry are exactly what make the gospel story Good News. Brian Donne summed up the ascension this way:
Here we are at the very heart of our faith, . . . for without the Ascension, a hiatus exists whereby the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith are virtually unrelated to each other. The Ascension is the essential link between the Jesus who walked this earth and the Lord of heaven; the Christ who entered our world of time and space and now reigns in glory in the eternal world; the Savior who dies on Calvary’s Cross and the High Priest who ever lives to make intercession in heaven for his people on earth (Donne, 25).
The ascension indeed plays a critical role in the redemptive narrative and in the ongoing life, witness, mission, and worship of Christ’s church. Anglican Bishop Peter Atkins referred to the church’s worship as a bridge “between the incarnation of Jesus and the eternal nature of Jesus as God” (Atkins, 92). “In the ascension,” he explained, “the Jesus of history becomes the Christ of eternal presence” (Atkins, 92). Therefore, “in worship the ‘then’ and the ‘now’ are so intertwined that they become as one” (Atkins, 92). The ascended Christ is made present as the Word is read and preached, as the bread and wine are offered, as the blessing is bestowed, and as the word of absolution is proclaimed. In worship, as described by pastor Gerritt Scott Dawson, “the Holy Spirit presents the historical, ascended, and still advent Jesus to us freshly in the present moment. . . . The ascension makes the historical, yet living Jesus . . . our perennial meeting place with God until he returns” (Dawson, 51). In worship, through the ascended Christ’s high priestly intercession, we are lifted into the very heart of God; our wills are joined to the divine will to work for the coming of God’s kingdom.