The Festival of the Ascension

The feast day of the Ascension has a little of everything in it—Christmas, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and the anticipation of Pentecost.

Forty days after his resurrection, on a Thursday, our Lord gathered his disciples on a hillside in Galilee. After final instructions, he left this world with his visible presence and reascended to his native heaven. There, he sits at the right hand of the Father in eternity with his exalted human nature intact. He did not discard his humanity after his work on earth was finished, but took it with him! Although Jesus has removed his visible presence from us at his Ascension, he has not removed his effective presence from us. He and all his gifts are fully present in the message of the gospel.

This day is a triumph for Christ, a festival of victory. He certainly deserves this triumph! He left his Father’s throne in heaven and humbled himself to be born as one of his own created creatures. He lay in a crude stable in Bethlehem, fled to Egypt from his own people, and traveled to exhaustion throughout Israel to lead the lost sheep back to the fold. He experienced misunderstanding and lovelessness and finally suffered the physical and mental anguish of the Passion from Gethsemane to Golgotha. Why all this? Because he loved us. For what purpose? To purchase our freedom from the power of the devil and to lead us home into the heavenly fatherland. To this work he devoted all his love, his heart’s blood, everything. This work is now completed. Today he may look back joyfully upon his finished life’s work. He returns to heaven as Victor. This day is the festival of the human Christ’s Ascension to the throne and of his crowning as the King of heaven and earth.

Ascension Day is a feast of gladness for Christ, but also for us. Our Brother’s glorification by his Ascension is also the elevation of our human nature—it is also our glorification. Our human nature participates in the highest divine honor. Christ entered heaven in his human body and he sits on God’s throne in his human nature. One human, our Head, sits upon the throne of God, and therefore we, the members of his mystical body, are deified. A divine nobility is conferred upon us. But sin does not ascend to heaven with Christ. Sin is a bond that attaches us to earth and must be broken. First we ascend and live in heaven with our hearts and wills and desires even while still temporarily living on earth. Later we shall follow our Lord into heaven with body and soul also.

Some churches hold a special Ascension Day worship service on Thursday. Although we do not customarily hold that service at King of Grace, here are the readings for your meditation on this special day.

The Gospel reading:

Luke 24:44-53

In this last teaching session with his disciples, Jesus tells them God’s sweeping plan of redemption, carried out over thousands of years, is complete. The revelation of law through Moses and the Prophets all had fulfillment in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. But not everyone knows about it. His work needs proclamation, and the church continues this work.

We might have expected the disciples to be sad at the departure of Jesus. But the disciples returned to Jerusalem with joy after their Lord’s separation, for they knew that what was taken from them was merely his visible presence. He was, in reality, with them always and is with us too. He kept his last promise to send and to keep on sending the Spirit with the power to keep us until he comes again.

The New Testament history reading:

Acts 1:1-11

The book of Acts was written by St. Luke as part two of his Gospel. Its first paragraph overlaps with the last paragraph of the Gospel—beginning with the risen king Jesus instructing the disciples about life in his kingdom over a period of 40 days after his resurrection. Jesus’ final words to His disciples are a promise that is fulfilled beginning at Pentecost, a mere ten days away. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would come to them, fulfilling one of the key hopes in the Old Testament Prophets. The Prophets had promised that in the messianic kingdom, God’s presence in his Spirit would take up residence among his people in a new temple, transforming their hearts. Jesus said that when this happens, the Spirit would empower his disciples “to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Then Jesus was taken up from their sight in a cloud. The cloud which took him from their sight is strongly reminiscent of the cloud which surrounded visibly the special presence of God among his people during his dealings with Israel (search for the word ‘cloud’ especially in the book of Exodus). The prophet Daniel also used the cloud image in Daniel 7:13-14. Jesus’ ascension into the cloud shows that Jesus is now being enthroned as the Son of Man who was vindicated after his suffering. He now shares in God’s rule over the world, which he will bring fully here on earth when he one day returns. As at his coming the angels of heaven spoke to those looking up, so at his leaving the earth they carry the message of promise. In that hope Christians live and witness.

The Epistle reading:

Ephesians 1:16-23

St. Paul, who was not present at Jesus’ ascension but became an apostle later through special revelation, also testifies to Jesus’ ascension and his continued reign, noting that God “seated [Jesus] at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Ephesians 1:21). Absolutely no authority figure can successfully oppose the risen and ascended Christ. He is Lord over them all. And this is true not only for the present but also for the future.

Not only is Christ above all authority figures, he is in charge of everything that happens. And all his power is now used for one grand purpose, the good of his church and his Christians. The relationship between Christ and all authority figures is simply that of a lord and master dealing with subordinates. But Christ’s relationship with believers is entirely different. It is an organic relationship, a connection as close as the one the head shares with the members of the body. Although Christ fills everything in every way, yet he chooses to be empty and unfulfilled without his church. From eternity he has elected the members of his church and he will not rest until he has brought salvation to each one personally.

(Some material quoted from Fred H. Lindemann, The Sermon and the Propers, vol. 2, Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, 1958.)