In a 4th century sermon on the Ascension of the Lord, Augustine of Hippo asks “why the great solemnity we’re celebrating today doesn’t draw a greater number of the faithful, and why this happy day fails to make Christians thrill with joy.” He could have been writing to present-day Christians. Although it’s one of the Twelve Great Feasts, Ascension often disappears from the church’s celebration, mentioned in connection with the Resurrection, if at all. It can seem like The Empire Strikes Back between the A New Hope of Easter and the Return of the Jedi that is Pentecost.
Granted, that comparison may seem irreverent. But I find myself drawn to the middle act of epics. I like The Empire Strikes Back best in the original Star Wars movies, The Two Towers is my favorite book of the Lord of the Rings, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, my favorite chronicle of Narnia, lies at the center of that heptalogy 1. These middle children of their authors are sometimes dismissed as stories in which not much happens, in part because the story must continue in a meaningful way without completely resolving the conflict. In other words, a “middle movement” can seem a mere bridge from the first installment to the third, winding up some of the first chapter’s falling action, or setting up the third chapter.
Like a middle movie, the Ascension sometimes slips into the background, lost between Easter and Pentecost. But it remains one of the Twelve Great Feasts for a reason. Jesus’ ascension might seem a coda to his earthly ministry, or an interlude between his first and second comings. In reality, it inaugurates a new way of life in Christ, what Richard Foster calls the “with-God” life. It’s also a powerful statement about reality, one that counters tempting theological positions about who Jesus was and is.
I. History and Celebration of the Feast
During the forty days after his resurrection, Jesus likely appeared many times to his disciples, but only a few are recorded. Matthew relates one, and the remainder are in Luke and John. In Acts 1, Luke makes the purpose of these appearances clear: “To [the disciples] he presented himself alive after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God” (verse 3).
But the Ascension is a blink-and-miss-it event in the Gospels. Matthew and John don’t mention it at all, and Mark and Luke each give it one verse—16:19 and 24:51, respectively.
But Luke takes it up again in Acts 1. After 40 days spent offering his disciples “many proofs” of his resurrection and teaching them about the kingdom of God, Jesus takes his disciples back to a familiar place: the Mount of Olives. They wonder aloud if the kingdom will come immediately, and Jesus gives a two-part answer. “It’s not for you to know,” he says, but he follows that dismissal with a powerful promise: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” The disciples then see him “lifted up,” and they watch as “a cloud took him out of their sight.” They continue to watch until two angels appear and encourage them with the promise of Jesus’ return “in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” The disciples returned to Jerusalem and began waiting for the promised Holy Spirit, who rushed upon them ten days later, on the feast of Pentecost.
Still, the Ascension likely left a lasting impression on those few witnesses. St. Augustine, in a letter to his spiritual son, Januarius, suggests that the commemoration of the Ascension originated with those apostles. Until the 4th century, however, most places observed the event on the fiftieth day after Easter, along with Pentecost, to close the Easter season. One reason may have been the way the Scriptures treat the Ascension. The Gospels and Acts both make Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit one of his last words to the disciples. A second reason that celebrating with Pentecost likely appealed was that that feast always fell on a Sunday, while Ascension occurred on Thursday.
As with most practices in the early church, the celebration of Ascension wasn’t uniform throughout the world. The 4th-century pilgrim Egeria kept a diary of her travels to Israel, in which she writes that in Bethlehem in 380, Ascension was already being celebrated on the fortieth day after Easter, a Thursday. But in Jerusalem, the church observed the Ascension at Pentecost with a procession to the Mount of Olives, Scripture readings, prayers, and songs. 2
In timing and practice, then, the feast became settled in the late 4th-early 5th centuries. As far as the timing of the feast, early Christians could look to the book of Acts, where we have already noted Jesus’ forty days of proofs and teaching. But that period of time has symbolic significance, too. It mirrored the 40 days of Lenten preparation that had become common observance, and that congruency made sense to early interpreters of Scripture. In a sermon for Ascension, St. Augustine says:
“[T]hose forty days correspond exactly to the forty days of Lenten penance. Those, therefore, who endured the privations of that period for God’s sake are entitled to rejoice in his presence during the forty days following the Resurrection. And those whom fear brought low should feel buoyed up by the consolations he showers upon them.”
In practice, the church’s use of Scriptures, songs, and prayers certainly contributed to their rejoicing. Several Old Testament passages had already become important, including:
- Isaiah 2:2-3—“The mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains…and all the nations shall flow to it.”
- Isaiah 62:10–63:3, 7-9—Especially “he lifted them up and carried them all” (63:9)
- Zechariah 14—Especially verses 4 and 9: “On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem to the east…And the Lord will be king over all the earth.”
Perhaps some of their songs already contained the seeds that would flower into the church’s Ascension hymns. The core truths of these hymns are based in scripture, and their themes are also present in early Ascension homilies by St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. John Chrysostom. In fact, the oldest preserved hymn related to the Ascension was originally sung at Pentecost but became associated with Ascension at this time:
“You were born, our God, in a manner of Your own choosing.
You appeared and suffered in the flesh as You willed.
Through Your resurrection You conquered death
and ascended into glory, fulfilling all things;
You sent down the divine Spirit upon us,
therefore in songs we praise Your divinity.”3
Notice the hymnwriter’s association of fulfillment with the Ascension, a concept to which we’ll return below.
Another hymn, written by the sixth-century hymnwriter St. Romanus the Melodist, also celebrates the Ascension using the language of fulfillment.
When You fulfilled the plan of salvation for us,
and united all things on earth to those in heaven, O Christ our God,
You ascended in glory without leaving us,
but remaining ever present with us;
You proclaimed to those who love You :
“I am with you and nobody will prevail against you.”
St. Romanus adds two additional concepts to fulfillment: unity and presence. In other words, Jesus’ ascension brings earth and heaven together and, despite his physical departure, underscores Jesus’ continuing presence with those on earth. These three ideas—fulfillment, unity, and presence—are keys to our participating in the Ascension of Jesus.
II. The Meaning of the Ascension
St. Athanasius wrote that God became what we are so that we might become what he is. 4 Walking with Christ through the church calendar invites us to live into the reality of Jesus’ life. Jesus is born in us in the Incarnation; in him our “old man” is crucified; we are raised with him to new life—those might seem straightforward and familiar. But the Ascension is no exception to this way of seeing our life in Christ, as the Apostle Paul makes clear in his New Testament letters. Far from being a coda to Jesus’ earthly ministry, or an interlude between his first and second coming, the Ascension offers Jesus’ disciples another opportunity to “put on Christ” (Romans 13:14; Galatians 3:27).
It’s important to note at the outset that we don’t presently imitate his ascension, performing a similar act ourselves. Instead, we participate in it, receiving and enjoying its benefits. Augustine put it this way: “Out of compassion for us he descended from heaven, and although he ascended alone, we also ascend, because we are in him by grace” (emphasis mine). 5
St Paul certainly saw the Ascension this way. To the Ephesians he wrote that God “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6). The parallel of our resurrection in Christ and our ascension is clear. And the second part, being “seated with Christ,” ties directly to the Ascension reality that Jesus now sits in the place of honor and authority: at the Father’s right hand.
In Ephesians 4 St Paul makes the connection even more explicitly, tying Christ’s ascension to the victory procession pictured in Psalm 68. Ascended on high, Jesus affirms his kingship over all creation. He is also the good king who gives “gifts” to men. “Ascension,” Eugene Peterson writes in Practicing Resurrection, “is the opening scene that establishes the context for everything that follows: Jesus installed in a position of absolute rule – Christ our King. All men and women live under the rule of Jesus. This rule trumps all other thrones and principalities and powers.” 6
So the Ascension is an already fulfilled promise from which we benefit. Jesus, the sacrifice for sin, rises like the smoke of an accepted sacrifice. “The cloud which today envelopes Jesus and ascends with him to heaven represents the smoke of the sacrifice rising from the altar to God. The sacrifice is accepted, … [and] the work of our salvation has been accomplished and is blessed.” 7
But the Ascension also represents a twofold promise for the future. For one thing, Jesus will return. As the angels tell the watching disciples in Acts 1, “He will return in the same way”—that is, in the air. And we will not merely watch that day. We will ascend to meet him. Writing of Jesus’ return to the Thessalonians, Paul says that after the resurrection of the dead, “we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess. 4:17).
On that day, our faith will become sight. Like Paul, we will feel scales fall from our eyes, and we will experience as complete the unity we have only experienced in part. There’s a reason that the New Testament is charged with the language of longing, the kind of longing C.S. Lewis called Sehnsucht. It is because those disciples who knew Jesus remembered him, and they looked for his return with an almost unbearable hope and longing. It may be most obvious in the writings of St John the Beloved. “Beloved,” he writes, “we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
We shall see him. But if we await his return, how can he be with us? To us, it may seem paradoxical that Jesus ascends bodily, his humanity entering the heavenly Jerusalem, just after he promised to be present with his people “to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). But the Ascension marks a transition in his relationship to the whole church. It doesn’t mark the end of Jesus’ relationship with the Church but the beginning of a new way of His relating to the world, in and through the Church. In a sermon on Ascension, Martin Luther puts this paradoxical but powerful truth like this:
“We must, therefore, conceive of his ascension and Lordship as something active, energetic and continuous, and must not imagine that he sits above while we hold the reins of government down here. Nay, he ascended up thither for the reason that there he can best do his work and exercise dominion. Had he remained upon earth in visible form, before the people, he could not have wrought so effectually, for all the people could not have been with him and heard him. Therefore, he inaugurated an expedient which made it possible for him to be in touch with all and reign in all, to preach to all and be heard by all, and to be with all. Therefore, beware lest you imagine within yourself that he has gone, and now is, far away from us. The very opposite is true: While he was on earth, he was far away from us; now he is very near.”
Seen with the eyes of faith, then, the Ascension can transform the way we see reality, the way we see ourselves in Christ, and the way we join in the work that God is doing in the world. We rejoice that at the center of all things is Jesus, fully human, vindicated as God and interceding for us. Jesus was raised bodily, and he remains incarnate, “reigning, praying, preparing.”8 I cannot help but agree with St Augustine: “If the Church ever has the right and the duty to rejoice, isn’t it on the day when the Savior opens heaven for her?”
Moreover, don’t miss that in the Ascension Jesus remains incarnate, “reigning, praying, preparing.” 9 And that’s a promise not only for the present, but also for the future. We live coram Deo, face-to-face with God, but we do so in the fog of a still-smoldering war. We look forward to a day when the smoke will clear and we will meet Jesus face-to-face.
But don’t assume that the Ascension left us to our own devices, with nothing but our wits. As Martin Luther said, “beware lest you imagine within yourself that he has gone, and now is, far away from us. The very opposite is true: While he was on earth, he was far away from us; now he is very near.” In other words, if we are in Christ, as Paul says repeatedly, he is really with us now.
And as he is present with us, he is present to the world in his people, the church. We bear witness not only in carrying his name but by re-presenting him to a watching world. After all, the life of faith “must be lived—lived in the flesh.” And we his people remain for now as an “incarnation” of Christ to the world that has not yet met him “in the flesh.”10
III. Suggestions for Practice
- The first form of the “Jesus Prayer,” cried out by Bartimaeus from a roadside, declares Jesus’ kingship of Israel: “Son of David, have mercy!” The version many Orthodox Christians pray, counting their prayers with elaborately knotted ropes or bracelets, calls Jesus, “Son of God”: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy.” Consider beginning your day with this simple prayer. Pray it again during the transitions—when you enter or exit, when you sit or stand, when you greet someone. Let it serve as a reminder that Jesus is your King, and that your calling is to re-present him to the world in every setting.
- Let Jesus’ kingship also inform your rest. After all, we are seated with Christ in the heavens. If you don’t observe a “sabbath” day of rest each week, consider planning one. Put aside your usual work and reflect on the restful reality that Jesus is King of all. You can find some additional suggestions for rest in Sabbath: The Ancient Practices by Dan Allender and Keeping the Sabbath Wholly by Marva Dawn.
- Jesus is an unusual king, one who exalted on high but also hidden with the poor. Read two poems that capture this truth from different angles. The first is Malcolm Guite’s poem for the feast of Christ the King, also published in Sounding the Seasons. The other is the well-known “As kingfishers catch fire,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. What does each say about the King of glory?