In the wider church, Sunday, May 17 is Ascension Sunday. It remembers Jesus’s ascension to heaven after 40 days on earth following his resurrection (Acts 1:6-26). This story, and the first thing the disciples do in its wake, will be the focus of our worship this Sunday.
We give a lot of attention to Jesus’s death on the cross and his resurrection on the third day. But the ascension is the neglected child in this trinity of momentous events. Does it mean anything for us in 2015?
Churches in Europe give more attention to the ascension than we do. In some cathedrals there is a hole in the ceiling, right above the altar, and on Ascension Sunday a porcelain Christ figure that has been placed on the table is pulled up through the hole, leaving everyone in the church, like those first disciples, “gazing up toward heaven.” Then, after a moment, a dove is lowered through the same opening. In some churches there also follows a shower of almonds, nuts, raisins and other treats from above…rather like the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost.
But the ascension is about much more than Jesus floating up into the sky. It really is a political statement about the crucified and resurrected Jesus ascending to power as the world’s true Lord. As in the Old Testament, where God “goes up” to reign in power over the nations (Psalm 47), so also has Jesus “gone up,” to reign at the right hand of God over the world.
Watching the news can make one conclude that the world’s lords are the ones who control the most money, armies and political power. And the daily reminders that the world is in the grip of powers that are often evil can be depressing.
That’s why we need to complete Jesus’s death and resurrection with his ascension. The ascension affirms that it is the risen Jesus who ultimately reigns over the peoples and nations of the earth, that one day his invisible rule will be disclosed for all to see, and that his will—God’s will—shall be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Thank God that Jesus has “gone up!” That is very, very good news.