What to make of Ascension Day?

As far as celebrations go, this one is the bottom of the barrel, the wallflower of all Christian celebrations. I’m talking Ascension Day, the day Christians mark the ascent of Jesus Christ to heaven, and it’s tomorrow.
A likely part of Ascension Day’s anonymity is it’s inability to be marketed. Can you imagine how to hype it up and shop it out — instead of Santa and reindeer at Christmas, bunnies and eggs at Easter, maybe some form of Ascension Day Buzz Lightyear (“to infinity and beyond!”) would work. Unlikely.

For this reason alone, I think Ascension Day is worth our increased attention — to give ourselves freshly to a celebration our culture has a hard time understanding and the market seems unable to commercialize.
But among Christians there’s not much interest in Ascension Day because I don’t think we know what to make of it. Why would we, people who want to follow Jesus, people who seek God’s presence, why on earth would we want to mark a day that Jesus went out of this world? For all of us who struggle to know God, who sometimes wrestle with seasons when God’s absence is an all-too-present experience, well, who needs a day to remind us of that? And in what can sometimes feel like a mad, mad world, where bombs go off in Manchester, who can’t scream out, “Where are you God?”

Ascension Day is the helpful for just such moments. It reminds us that what we perceive is only part of the picture. There is a larger reality at play in the universe, of which the events and circumstances of this world are but one part.

It reminds us that we will live with a deep heart ache in this life. Our ultimate hope, the fulfillment of our deepest longings, will not be found in this world and life but await us in what the bible calls “a better country” (Heb. 11:16).

The ascension of Jesus helps us navigate the reality of Jesus’ absence and presence. While Jesus is bodily absent from the world he is not distant from us (recall his final words: “I am with you always, even to the end of age.” Mt. 28:20) Jesus remains actively Lord of all, praying for us and this world, and remains very present through his Holy Spirit.

And Jesus is actively present through his church — which provides another angle to consider God’s presence in this world. Where are you looking for God? So often we can find ourselves staring off into some distance, hoping to spy some sign of God’s presence in this world. Well, look in the mirror because the Christian story teaches that God is present through people, his church.

There’s a funny detail in the ascension story that constantly corrects me. After Jesus is taken from their sight, the disciples are left staring off into space, looking for some sign of Jesus. After who knows how long, an angelic presence taps them on the shoulder and asks, “Why are you staring into the sky looking for Jesus?” and they are sent off with the promise of Jesus’ return.

There are other dimensions of reality — spiritual dimensions — that exist, of which we have only hints. Jesus’ ascension points to these other dimensions. I wish I could more often see into these, to more clearly perceive the ways God is present and active. While I can access it (see the end note on prayer) I mostly can’t see it. Instead, like the disciples, I’m reminded by Ascension day to stop staring off into heaven and instead to look around me, because this earth, this life, this time is what I’m called to. Following Jesus is not to be waiting around asking for signs of God. Rather, because we know Jesus is Lord of all things, because he has empowered us with his Holy Spirit, we shift our gaze. We fully face our bruised and bleeding world and step into it as the presence of God. It’s what we were made for and what we’re redeemed for — image-bearers of God participating in God’s renewal of all things.

One of the church’s great saints, Teresa of Avila, got the ascension right when she said, “Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion looks on the world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.”

So church, be who you are — the living presence of Jesus.

And on this Ascension Day, let me also call you to prayer, the primary means by which we commune with Jesus and access the larger dimensions of reality. The ten days between Ascension Day and Pentecost are traditionally days of concerted prayer. Jesus called the disciples to wait and pray for God’s power through the Holy Spirit. And so let me call you to intentional, focused prayer for the next 10 days. Pray in whatever way you want, with whoever you want and wherever you can. But let me ask you to focus your prayers on three things: 1) For the empowerment and outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit on Knox Church, that we as his disciples will be given new confidence and encouragement by the Holy Spirit, 2) That we may be made effective witnesses to Jesus Christ, and 3) for friends, colleagues, neighbours or family members to come to know and love Jesus Christ.

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