Summary: Seeks to expound the Ascension in its Historical, Spiritual and Practical context
THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD JESUS CHRIST
If you had looked at your diary last Thursday (that would have been six weeks after Easter) you might have seen the heading "Ascension Day", but then it might not be there because Ascension Day is one of the neglected feast days of the Christian church. That would be sad enough but in ignoring the festival, the opportunity is lost of reflecting on the message of the Ascension. If we gloss over its truth we rob ourselves of a most important doctrine, for without the Ascension, the work of Christ would be incomplete.
The BBC (in Britain) does its best by broadcasting a special service - it’s good to hear the Ascension hymn, "Hail the day that sees him rise, Alleluia!" Some Christian churches mark the Ascension of Jesus with a festival. Some years ago I was in Spain at this time of the year. A huge cross had been erected on the steps of the cathedral in Grenada and was being decorated with red flowers. It was quite a spectacle. Many European countries celebrate Ascension Day with a bank holiday - I’m envious of my colleagues in Greece!
Perhaps because Ascension Day falls on a weekday it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. This is a pity because it is full of significance in the historical life of Jesus when on Earth - and his continuing ministry for us in heaven. As a weekday event it reminds us that Christianity isn’t just something for Sunday - it’s an experience for every day. For the Christian the secular cannot be separated from the sacred.
Although the Ascension occupies a place on the church’s calendar it is far from being prominent in Christian thought. It seems overshadowed by Good Friday and outshone by the glory of the Easter morning. Unfortunately this means that many Christians miss the tremendous truth that the Ascension of Jesus Christ has to teach us. Cynics say that Jesus had no need to take a journey into space! Critics have ridiculed his Ascension by calling him the first astronaut! So let’s get to the truth of the matter by thinking first of it’s significance:
The gospel writer Luke is renowned as a careful historian. When he recorded the birth of Jesus he rooted the event in its historical setting within the Roman Empire. He continues that same preciseness at the end of our Lord’s earthly ministry by recalling the place of the Ascension - at Bethany. He dates the event - 40 days after the resurrection on Easter Day. He emphases the presence of eyewitnesses - the Ascension took place, he writes "before their very eyes" (Acts 1:9). Yes, the Ascension was a real event of history.
Some people are puzzled as to why Jesus waited around on Earth 40 days after his resurrection, but that period is no accident. Jesus had endured the Devil’s temptation for 40 days in the wilderness at the beginning of his public ministry, but now the tables were turned. In the post-ascension period Jesus triumphantly paraded his victory over the Devil and all his works. During this time, the conqueror of death displayed his supremacy before his faithful followers so that they might share in the joy of his victory. But there was another reason. Those 40 days of his appearing after the resurrection were of immense value to the believers for they established the reality of his lordship. A single sighting of the risen Christ may have been open to question, but his continuous encounters that the disciples had with him would remove the doubts of the most sceptical among them and assure them of his power and authority.
The Ascension must always remain a mystery in the sense that it’s beyond the scope of human experience. It takes us into the realm of the supernatural. It happened very simply and quickly. The Master and his followers were gathered on the slopes of Olivet. When Jesus had delivered his farewell message to the disciples he lifted up his nail-scarred hands in blessing. Then his body commenced to rise supernaturally, and a cloud bore him out of their sight. What a fitting end to his earthly ministry!
It’s not surprising that the supernatural should be evident at his departing for it was equally present in his birth and resurrection. Just as in the case of the resurrection, some would deny a literal Ascension because it’s considered unscientific. But it must be said that these problems are in the minds of scholars rather than in the hearts of Christians. There’s the objection that it would be impossible for a body to rise against the law of gravitation but this overlooks the fact that in the resurrection body of Christ higher laws were in operation. Think of an aircraft standing on an airport runway. It weighs many tons and is firmly clamped to the ground by the force of gravity. It can’t possibly fly! That is until the power of the jet engines are turned on and the laws of aerodynamics come into their own, proving that there is a force which can overcome gravity. So it was with the Lord Jesus. Just as death and the grave could not hold him when his Father raised him from the dead in a glorified body, so the Earth could not hold him when the time came for him to return to his Father.