We know why we celebrate Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter. But “Ascension Day”? Really? Is there such a thing?
Indeed there is. Today is Ascension Day, the Thursday that falls forty days after Easter Sunday. And it has been a thing in the Christian Church for a very long time. The ancient church observed Ascension Day, also known as Ascension Thursday or Holy Thursday. In the east, early church fathers such as John Chrysostom (c.349-407), the bishop of Constantinople, and Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-c.395), the bishop of Nyssa, mention it frequently in their writings. In the west, Augustine (395-430), the bishop of Hippo, claimed that the day was of apostolic origin and universally observed in the church for centuries.
During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and early 17th centuries, Ascension Day was not deleted from the liturgical calendar. Although the Protestant Reformers sought to reform worship and the liturgical year according to Scripture and emphasized the importance of the Lord’s Day as the primary Christian holiday, they did not disparage everything in the church calendar. The liturgies of the Palatinate (the region of the Holy Roman Empire in which the Heidelberg Catechism was published in 1563), Strasbourg (where the reformer Martin Bucer labored), and those prescribed by the Synod of Dort included five “evangelical feast days”: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost.
Many Reformed churches still celebrate Ascension Day by holding a special worship service on a Thursday evening. In fact, the Church Order of the URCNA encourages its observance, along with Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost. If we are unfamiliar with Ascension Day, it may be due to the tradition from which we’ve come. Sadly, American evangelicalism has become disconnected to the practices of the historic Christian church.
Still, we might wonder why we should bother with a day that observes Christ’s ascension. Do we really need to celebrate when Jesus floated off to heaven? Christmas is about his incarnation. Good Friday is about his death of atonement. Easter is about his glorious resurrection. But the ascension seems to be little more than a mode of transportation. It’s not an event upon which we tend to meditate.
Perhaps our lack of appreciation for Christ’s ascension has something to do with our lack of observing Ascension Day. We need to understand and remember the importance of the ascension. We confess it in the creeds as an essential event in redemptive history, as essential as Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection. Without the ascension, Christ would not have sent the Holy Spirit upon his new covenant church empowering his apostles to be his witnesses in the world (John 14-16; Acts 1.8). Without the ascension, we would not have the gift of the ministry of the Word, which the Spirit uses to build us up in the faith and mature us in Christ (Eph 4.7-16). Without the ascension, we would not have a great high priest in heaven, who has presented himself for the propitiation of our sins, ministers on our behalf in the true tabernacle, and intercedes for us continually (Heb 2.17-18; 4.14; 7.23-25; 9.11-14; 10.11-14). As the Heidelberg Catechism summarizes so pastorally, Christ’s ascension benefits us because, “First, he pleads our cause in heaven in the presence of his Father. Second, we have our own flesh in heaven – a guarantee that Christ our head will take us, his members, to himself in heaven. Third, he send his Spirit to us on earth as a further guarantee. By the Spirit’s power we make the goal of our lives, not earthly things, but the things about where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand.”
Like Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost, Ascension Day focuses our attention on God’s mighty acts in Christ, which occupy center stage in redemptive history. Let us give God thanks today for Christ’s ascension into heaven, upon which he led a host of captives and gave gifts to his church!
~ Pastor Brown