On May 21, 2009, I landed at Cointrin Airport in Geneva, Switzerland. It was my first visit to the city where John Calvin spent most of his time leading the church. I went there to commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformer’s birth. There were two conferences that I attended during that trip, both centered on the theology and legacy of Calvin.
Traveling to Europe on a shoestring budget, I planned my visit very carefully. I chose a hotel in Ferney-Voltaire, France, an inexpensive locale only about five miles from Geneva. I studied the bus and train lines that connect the two places. It would only take me about twenty minutes to get from the airport to the hotel and around the same time from the hotel to the conference place. Buses ran frequently during normal hours. I arrived in Geneva in the middle of the day, so I thought I would not have any problem catching the bus.
After collecting my luggage, I left the terminal for the bus stop. I waited over an hour without seeing a bus. Feeling uneasy, I started to read the schedule posted on the wall of the bus shelter. Only then did I realize that that day, May 21, 2009, was Ascension Day, and between Ascension Day and Pentecost Monday buses and trains in the city run on far less frequent schedules due to what the Swiss call petite vacances, or a “little vacation.” Coming from the United States, I was oblivious to the significance of the day; we are not accustomed to remembering Ascension Day, let alone observing it. For many Christians in North America, once Easter is over, our focus is set on Pentecost. We forget the importance of Ascension Day in our church year as a day that helps us center our lives around Christ and his redemptive work for us.
In his Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Calvin calls Jesus’ ascension to heaven “one of the chiefest points of our faith” (1949, p. 49). He emphasizes that the visible ascension of Jesus into heaven is necessary so that his disciples can be free of doubt. They see that Jesus indeed physically returns to the Father in heaven. Had Jesus only vanished away in secret, Calvin explains, the disciples would have been left with unanswered questions. But with his visible ascension to heaven, Jesus confirms the certainty of our faith. In the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, published in Basel in 1536, Calvin clearly states that when we affirm our faith through the Apostles’ Creed and say “He ascended to heaven,” we tell ourselves that Jesus’ physical entrance to the kingdom of heaven opens for us the door that was initially closed because of Adam’s sin (trans. Ford Lewis, 1975, p. 56). Calvin believes that Jesus entered heaven in human flesh, as though he brought our names with him there so that together with him we may possess heaven through hope. Furthermore, says Calvin, as Jesus sits at the right hand of God the Father and has been declared and appointed judge, king, and lord over all, the entire creation has therefore been subjected under his rule. As ruler, Jesus sanctifies us and washes us from all our sins so that after our physical death we will receive in him the glory that he reserves for us against the power of hell.
According to Calvin, the ascension of Christ does not merely assure us that we will see him in heaven, but also gives us the expectation of the Second Coming. As Calvin explains in his Commentary on Acts, the two angels dressed in white who stood beside the disciples as Jesus ascended to heaven (Acts 1:11) bring the message of consolation that even though for a time Jesus is not present with us on earth, he will come again. Jesus will come as the Redeemer, and he will gather us with him into blessed immortality. Calvin says this message gives Christians patience as we face adversities and should refresh our weariness.
Understanding that Christian lives are full of challenges, Calvin teaches his readers to persevere in prayer. Explicating Acts 1 and 2, Calvin shows that the disciples of Jesus waited for the coming of the Holy Spirit by praying together in Jerusalem. Their prayers, Calvin believes, were not prayers of doubt, but prayers founded on true faith. Commenting on Acts 1:14, he writes, “Neither is prayer any sign of doubting, but rather a testimony of our sure hope and confidence, because we ask those things at the Lord’s hands which we know he hath promised” (1949, p. 57). Knowing that the Holy Spirit has come on the day of Pentecost, Calvin invites all of us to follow the example of the disciples and earnestly ask God to increase in us his Holy Spirit. He uses the word “increase” in his commentary to show that the Holy Spirit has come and been given to us. The fact that we can pray is a clear sign that the Spirit is in us, but we need to pray to God that the Holy Spirit comes abundantly more every day.
The ten days between Ascension Day and Pentecost, a time in which the disciples prayed to prepare themselves for the coming of the Holy Spirit, demonstrated their patience. Jesus did not send the Holy Spirit as soon as he ascended to heaven, Calvin notes. Christ wanted the disciples to wait. Calvin believes that often God allows us to languish to make us persevere in him. In so doing, God guides us to be constant in our prayers. An additional lesson from the disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem, Calvin states, is that they pray not just individually, but as a whole body, in the unity of their minds, for all people.
In our worship today, it is important for churches to remember and celebrate Ascension Day (see RW 103:10, tinyurl.com/HeAscended). It may be difficult for some churches today to hold a special service right on Ascension Day because it always falls on a Thursday. But I would like to strongly invite churches to celebrate the day on the Sunday after Ascension Day, one week prior to Pentecost Sunday. Churches can design the liturgies for the two Sundays as one unit. One idea would be to choose a song like “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus” Dix, LUYH 831, GtG 260, SSS 204 and sing it on both Ascension Day and Pentecost. This hymn invites the worshipers to praise Jesus, who triumphantly reigns over the entire universe. The second stanza of this hymn tells us that even though Jesus was hidden by the cloud as he ascended, he does not leave us as orphans. He has sent the Holy Spirit to live in us and with us. Churches can sing this hymn on both Sundays to unite the two services and help people rejoice in the reality of Christ’s ascent to heaven and the Holy Spirit’s descent to us.
What creative ideas do you have for showing the connection between the Ascension and Pentecost? Consider sharing them with Reformed Worship by emailing editors@ReformedWorship.org.