Easter without Ascension is like Advent without Christmas. The comparison is inexact; unlike Advent, Easter is not a time of preparation. However, just as Christmas is the culminating event Christians prepare for during Advent, the Ascension is the culminating event of Jesus’s bodily Resurrection. The Ascension is Christ’s “enthronement.” What began as the cruelest mockery, Christ’s crucifixion as King of the Jews, ends with the most surprising vindication. He was indeed King and did receive a throne. Failing to remember and celebrate the Ascension means our Easter season is incomplete. This liturgical omission is akin to the white witch’s curse in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – always winter but never Christmas.
Why do Protestants neglect the Ascension? The Ascension is still present in doctrine and confession. It’s in the Creed: “He ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty. . . .” Protestant confessions include it, and the liturgical celebration of Ascension occurred early in the church’s history. Yet despite its liturgical and doctrinal centrality, most Protestant worship neglects it. Imagine the reaction if churches failed to celebrate Christmas, yet few believers will sense something is missing if the day of Ascension passes without mention.
Ultimately, this neglect is a mystery. Why did it disappear from our worship? Perhaps it had to do with an iconoclastic Protestantism that banned feast days along with pilgrimages, relics and other holy practices some Reformers deemed superstitious? Perhaps it has to do with modern historical critical interpretations of the Ascension in Luke and Acts that view it as a capitulation to the delay of the parousia? The early church was surprised by Christ’s failure to return, so they had him depart and the church replaced his promised Kingdom. To paraphrase Loisy’s famous words, interpreting Harnack, “Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom and what we got was the church instead.” Or perhaps it has to do with the modern loss of sacred space and time, and Protestantism’s accommodation to that loss? No day seems any more or less holy than another; all are reduced to the same status. Brad Gregory argues that the Protestant Reformation had the “unintended consequence” of producing a secularized space and time. But the Reformers neither intended nor faced a secular age that disenchanted space and time turning them into occasions for economic exchange in which time is money 24/7. Whatever the reason for the loss of the feast of the Ascension in Protestantism, taking time on the Thursday, forty days after Easter, to gather as a church and engage in a gratuitous celebration of Christ’s glorious Ascension could begin to structure time and space different from its secular commodification. Retrieving the feast day of the Ascension demonstrates this loss was not intrinsic to the Reformation. It truly was unintended and does not have to be.
What exactly does Christ do in the Ascension? Even more so than Luke–Acts, Hebrews offers the fullest theological interpretation of the Ascension. In the Ascension Christ enters into the heavenly holy of holies as priest-king offering his “blood.” What he presents is his life and obedience, symbolized by his blood. It is important to emphasize that what the Son presents to the Father in his Ascension is not his death. Jesus does not assuage the Father’s wrath, satisfying a divine blood lust through his own death. No reputable theologian, certainly not Anselm, taught that. He makes this offering “through the eternal Spirit” as an “offering without blemish” (Heb. 8:14). All of this is, of course, highly symbolic and metaphoric language. A glorified, risen body that no longer knows limitations of space and time offers “blood” in a “heavenly sanctuary” and “sits” on the “right hand” of God, who of course has no hands. The images are odd, reflecting the biblical authors use of Psalm 110 to make sense of the paradoxical image of a crucified, enthroned King. Regardless, they convey the truth of Christ’s victory through earthly images that still require faith; they are not yet images that let us see face to face.
These two paradoxical images, the mocked, crucified Lord and the risen, ascended One, often provided the images within churches. Churches were once constructed with these two images, either in woodcuts or stained glass windows, flanking the opposite ends of the church. Upon entering the church, your eyes were directed toward the crucified, but in leaving the church you go out into the world led by an image of the risen, ascended Christ. Both images are necessary. The crucified without the risen, ascended Christ leads ineluctably to a disenchanted, even atheistic, culture. The ascended Christ without the crucified leads to triumphalism and a perverse celebration of ecclesial power. But when they are held together, the two images reflect the mysterious nature of the God who creates and redeems through an unexpected economy of divine giving. In refusing to cling to power, Christ is invested with it. This is a power that eternally bears the wounds of human existence not leaving them as wounds but healing them through the Spirit.
When we stop building churches that attest to its importance, when we forget the Ascension, Jesus’ body too easily disappears into the community that bears his name. Absorbing Christ into his church, or some other community, without remainder is always a temptation because it can make sense of Christianity without the messiness of the imagistic, metaphors of the Ascension. We can absorb Christ into the church by fetishizing the forms of his body that remain – Holy Scripture, the Eucharist, or the church itself. Christian tradition rightly refers to each of these as, in some sense, Christ’s body or word. When they lose connection to his Ascended body, they easily become our possessions rather than vice versa. The Ascension reminds us that Christ, as King, is the head of the body—we are not. If we lose the Ascension, Christ can also be absorbed without remainder into a secular community, which is then viewed as the logical consequence of God’s death on the cross. Just as Christianity disenchanted the Greek and Roman temples of the ancient world; so it finally turns on itself and disenchants the Christian and Jewish world. The crucifixion gets affirmed and so does a kind of “Spirit” resurrection, but the “Spirit” is now not only present in the community that creates a new ethical reality, the Spirit is nothing more than that community (possibly the democratic nation state or a future revolutionary society) that completes the liberation begun in the death of God. This secularizing of Christianity, oddly enough, has the same result as when the church absorbs Christ’s body. Christ’s body becomes fetishized as a present or future communal reality. A proper celebration and recognition of the Ascension resists both possibilities. Christ’s body cannot be absorbed into any community, not even the church, for he is seated at the right hand of the Father.
The Ascension also provides the church with its proper role – witness and expectation. The church is the body of Christ as it witnesses to Christ’s body and expects to be conformed to it through the Spirit. Christ’s absence in the Ascension makes possible the sending of the Spirit as the Johannine farewell discourses (John 14-17) along with Acts 1 attest. The sending of the Spirit constitutes the church and empowers it for mission through its witness and expectation of the restoration of all things in Christ. In this mission to bear witness to the restoration of all things the Church is often called “Easter people.” Unless we remember the particular form of both Christ’s absence and presence in the Ascension, we will have no idea what this call looks like.
The mission of the church should never be self-absorbed. As inheritors of Abraham and Sarah’s mission to not be like the nations for the sake of the nations (Genesis 12: 1-3), the church witnesses to the expectation that the one who sits on the throne will make all things new. The glory of all the nations will be affirmed, and truth and goodness will be the bonds that unite us. (Revelation 21:5, 22-27).
Believers who fasted during Lent and prepared for the empty tomb during Easter vigil, and those who rose early on Easter morning to celebrate Christ’s resurrection should long for the culminating event of the Ascension. Yet it does not seem to be so. We cannot let Easter slowly dissipate into Pentecost without taking a day, the proper day, for the celebration of Christ’s Ascension. The feast day of the Ascension recognizes that God’s rule is found in Christ’s powerlessness, a rule that makes him King and Priest. He enters into the heavenly sanctuary to offer his life and obedience to heal the wounds of a broken creation. It is a rule that resists all attempts to fetishize his body, for it does not depend upon our preserving it. His body, thankfully, is not located in a monument that can be indicated, visited and tended like other bodies that remain in the grave. He is not here. Where then is he? Is he only in our imagination, in our ethical or political achievements? No. He is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Whatever that means it at least means this. We do not control him. We witness and wait. The feast day of the Ascension is where we learn to do that best. Why would we want to neglect it?
Dr. D. Stephen Long is Professor of Systematic Theology at Marquette University and an ordained elder in the Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church. He has published numerous books and articles on theology and ethics. He is married to Ricka and they have three children.