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How does this make any sense? We go all out and celebrate Christmas, the beginning of Christ’s humiliation. We commemorate how he “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Phil. 2:7). To a lesser degree we also celebrate Good Friday and Easter, when Christ passed through the depths of hell and broke the cruel bonds of death. What we do not celebrate so much anymore is Ascension Day, the day on which Christ ascended into heaven and was enthroned at God’s right hand. Go figure. We celebrate his humbling even unto death. We celebrate the turnaround from humiliation to exaltation, when Christ burst death’s cruel bonds, all the while recognizing that Christ places that exaltation on pause for 40 days to regather his clueless, scattered disciples. But we largely ignore the crowning event of Jesus’ ministry—pun intended. On Ascension Day Jesus took his seat at God’s right hand as King of kings and Lord of lords. We let that pass with a yawn. Go figure.

In one of the last episodes of the Netflix series The Crown, Queen Elizabeth II realizes that at the celebration of her 50th year on the throne she will have to make a public appearance on the balcony of Buckingham Palace—this despite the fact that her popularity seems to be lower than that of Attila the Hun. She’s tormented by the specter of watching the balcony doors swing open and stepping out onto the balcony only to find nary a soul to greet her except for the Queen’s Guard and other troops paid overtime to show up.

Jesus had a similar worry: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). Look around this planet. Who still takes Jesus’ lordship seriously? Today the concept of lordship seems to lurk only in Camelot movies and Monty Python sketches.

The Ascent of Ascension Day

What happened? Why has Ascension Day descended in stature among our liturgical celebrations? To gain some perspective, let’s trace the trajectory of our commemoration of Jesus’ ascent.

Ancient Canaanites observed a day for Baal’s ascension to the throne. Baal was their god of rain, thunder, lightning, and fertility. Before growing season, Canaanites would sacrifice their first-born babies in fire and engage in orgies to celebrate Baal’s yearly enthronement. It seemed to work. In the spring, rain would show up fairly often, making the worshipers assume that Baal must be once again, ever-so-snugly reseated on his throne.

Bible scholars are divided about whether Israelites observed enthronement rituals for Yahweh. While it’s clear from Psalm 47 that they routinely celebrated God’s kingship over the world, there really wasn’t a coronation to speak of. That’s because Yahweh was known to be always on the throne. God didn’t need to ascend to it. Nor did he ever descend from it.

Psalm 2 does mention enthronement, but of David, and later, especially in the New Testament, of Jesus. The prophets share this vision of a double fulfillment: in the near future another Davidic king will take the throne; in the far future the messianic king from David’s lineage will.

Luke tells us in Acts 1 that the response to Jesus’ enthronement by the graciously regathered disciples was underwhelming—a big “Huh?” They just stared heavenward until two angels came to tell them to stop rubbernecking and to wait for Jesus to send them the Holy Spirit so they could proclaim Christ’s kingship to the whole planet. After all, that’s what Jesus had just emphasized to them: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go (the Greek connotes “wherever you go”) and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:18-19).

The apostle Paul makes a big deal about Jesus’ enthronement: “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow” (Phil. 2:9-10). Then Paul applies that incredible event directly to our everyday lives: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1).

There’s not much direct evidence that the early church celebrated Ascension Day, although several of the church fathers mention that the practice goes all the way back to the time of the apostles themselves. What is clear is that, already in the third century, Christian churches celebrated the 50-day festival of Easter, in which Ascension Day was observed on the 40th day. Eastern and Western churches are a bit out of sync given the different calendars they use for observing Easter Sunday.

The Eastern Orthodox Church has carried on the tradition, calling its celebration “Analepsis,” or “taking up.” They highlight it because in Jesus’ ascension they saw the completion of Christ’s redemptive work for us. That’s fine, but in our humble opinion as Reformed folk, that still doesn’t do quite enough to recognize Jesus as not only our Savior but also our Lord.

The Ups and Downs of Ascension Day

The Reformers, including John Calvin, weren’t so excited about Ascension Day. For that matter, they weren’t so excited about celebrating Easter or Christmas either. They opined that we should not bind ourselves to any specific church calendar, especially not one laid down by the Roman church hierarchy. Churches should be freed from any such “paper popes” and focus worship wherever the Spirit leads on any given (Sun)day. More importantly, the events celebrated on these days should be equally celebrated every day of the year. The Reformers resisted the common notion that by celebrating such feasts we’d done our bit and could now safely stow all that they signified away for another year, along with the Santa suits and Easter baskets.

But don’t misunderstand: despite this allergy to these liturgical “high days,” the Reformers were passionate about proclaiming, teaching, and living out Christ’s ascension. The Heidelberg Catechism, for one, has some amazing Lord’s Days on the topic (look them up!). It’s just that the Reformers didn’t want to get pushed around by ecclesiastical big shots, thank you very much.

The Synod of Dort was more amenable to celebrating liturgical holidays. It commended the practice of gathering the faithful for worship on feast days, but it did so by concession, arguing that it wouldn't hurt to deflect the citizenry from idle pursuits on these civic holidays. Better to have them warm their hearts in church than to cool their heels in the bars.

Over the next few centuries, the celebration of Ascension Day in Reformed circles continued to gather steam. It became common practice. The faithful would gather in respectable numbers. That was until a half-century ago. Attendance has declined so rapidly that most churches, seeing the writing on the wall, moved the liturgical celebration of Christ’s enthronement from Thursday to the Sunday after.

Sadly, many churches, including many in the Reformed tradition, now take no note of the occasion at all. Our kids know when Christmas is; gifts under the tree, lots of treats, and time away from school do an amazing job of refreshing their memory. Our kids also still know a bit about Easter from Easter bunnies and egg hunts. But Ascension Day? Nada. Not a clue. All they have to mark the occasion might be the odd Sunday school lesson with an illustration showing nothing more than the ascending Christ’s feet as the Savior passes through the top of the frame into the clouds.

How Now?

Given the present state of this planet, it’s probably more important than ever to realize, celebrate, proclaim, and broadcast Christ’s lordship anywhere and everywhere. That’s especially true when we realize the message of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ sobering limerick is still bang on:

God’s plan had a hopeful beginning,
but man spoiled his chances by sinning.
We trust that the story
will end in God’s glory.
But at present the other side’s winning.

To my mind, it wouldn’t make sense to turn back the clock and try to go back to Ascension Thursday worship services: been there, done that. But, Reformers’ protestations notwithstanding, I believe it’s still a good practice to roll with the liturgical calendar and make a point of celebrating Ascension Sunday—not out of obligation to ecclesiasts, to be sure, but just because God’s Spirit makes us want to. So why not celebrate?

On Ascension Sunday, let’s not just celebrate that Jesus is Lord, but remind ourselves how Jesus is Lord. The gospel assures us that the kingdom of God has already come, that it is among us. The risen Christ has already begun to reign, and much of that reign is hidden like yeast working through dough. But evidence of that deep-down work of the Spirit shows up all around us. And where it does, let’s show and tell. Let’s celebrate it. Ascension Sunday and the weeks around it are as good a time as any to highlight it.

To make the theme of that service concrete, consider:

  • inviting a principal or teacher from a Christian day school to tag-team on the sermon by laying out succinctly how our world-and-life-view matters in discipling our kids to follow Jesus daily in their tech-saturated lives.
  • allowing a professor from a Christian college or a medical doctor to show how we keep scientific and intellectual thought captive to Christ.
  • asking a representative of a Christian nonprofit, advocacy group, labor union, pro-life agency, or other Christ-committed organization to lay out where they see Jesus’ glorious and gentle reign pop up in the lives of those who are exploited, discarded, or just ignored by the rest of us.
  • planning a joint worship service with a church made up of Indigenous, Latino, or Asian believers and enjoying the riches of our diversity in our unity and unity in our diversity.

In tandem with a celebration of Jesus’ enthronement during the service itself, plan some events for the week running up to it:

  • Put on a church-based event inviting the Christian artists in your church or community to display their work in the sanctuary, lobby, or fellowship hall.
  • Offer a Discover Your Gifts seminar (check out Eph. 4:7-8).
  • Organize a ministries fair inviting ministry groups to set up displays and exhibits, with a pot of coffee and boxes of fresh donuts available (faith and food make a great combination, as the Bible keeps showing us).
  • Dream up an event to highlight Christian education and interact with students.
  • Schedule a social action/justice event everyone can get involved in, like a letter-writing party asking your politicians to advocate for a pressing societal issue.
  • Provide a stewardship seminar to remind us that Jesus is Lord over every dime in our purses.
  • Plan an outreach event in tandem with a church plant in your community.

Make Every Day Ascension Day

Rethinking Ascension Day is fine. But it will only be window dressing unless we heed the Reformers’ solemn caution: we need to celebrate Christ’s enthronement every day.

But how?

The angels’ message to those Galilean rubberneckers gives us an important clue: “‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’” (Acts 1:8).

What we are to give witness to is not just a baby in a manger, a Savior on the cross, or a risen Shepherd regathering his sheep to turn them into shepherds. We are to bear witness to King Jesus, the Crown Prince of all creation, who has already inaugurated the peaceable kingdom of divine justice tempered with heaven-sent mercy and grace.

We once took that seriously in our congregations. We began Christian schools. We set up institutions of higher learning. We asked them not just to equip our youngsters to get good jobs, but to engage them in the important task of making every thought captive to Christ, and in the process equipping them to become better roommates, parents, friends, church leaders, and citizens. We began Christian organizations, seeking to follow Christ in the workplace, the marketplace, prisons, and voting booths.

Sadly, we’re not witnessing a decline only of Ascension Day observance, but also of the kingdom vision to which we are called all year long. In many ways we no longer have that Spirit-led eye on the ball. In an age when the world’s empires clearly demonstrate they have no good answers to the world’s problems, we need to witness powerfully to that thoroughly biblical reality of our ascended Lord. But we instead are allowing ourselves to backslide into fundamentalist irrelevance where we major in minors—what our Reformed tradition rightly calls “disputable matters.” Our focus has turned inward. We proclaim Jesus as Savior. We neglect to proclaim him as Lord. So we ignore the devilishly difficult but delightful everyday challenges of living as subjects of the King of kings and inviting our neighbors to do the same.

In that Netflix episode of The Crown, Queen Elizabeth does step out onto the balcony at Buckingham Palace, but not into the nightmare she feared most. Instead, she’s overwhelmed and deeply touched by the massive, adoring crowd stretching as far as the eye can see. And suddenly she’s flanked by her family joining in the enthusiastic tribute to Her Majesty’s half-century on the throne.

When Jesus returns, may it be so for him. He deserves it.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is your experience with Ascension Day observance in the church? Did you attend many Ascension Day services? Has Ascension Day observance declined?
  2. Which of the author’s suggestions for celebrating Ascension Day piqued your interest? Why?

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