Thursday May 9 is the Feast of the Ascension, at least in the West. (Eastern Orthodox Christians will celebrate it on June 13). It is the fortieth day after Easter and the day on which, according to the opening verses of Acts of the Apostles, Jesus ascended into heaven.
Luke, the author of Acts, mentions the Ascension briefly at the end of his Gospel. Other than that, the only mention of the event comes from the longer ending of the Gospel of Mark, Mark 16:19, though 1 Timothy 3:16 mentions that Jesus was “taken up in glory” and Ephesians 4:10 says that Jesus “climbed up above all the heavens.”
Though the New Testament writers don’t devote a lot of words to explaining the details and significance of Jesus’ ascent, the Ascension would become an essential part of Christian doctrine. Both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds include a statement about the Ascension. The church was celebrating the Feast of the Ascension as early as the fifth century, if not earlier. The Roman Catholic Church lists the Feast of the Ascension as a solemnity, or principal holy day. Some Catholic dioceses observe the Ascension—the fortieth day after Easter—as a holy day of obligation (a day on which faithful Catholics are required to participate in mass).
Protestants tend to pay less attention to the liturgical calendar than our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters. This is especially true in the case of the Ascension. The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) offers Scripture readings for Ascension Thursday, but relatively few of Protestant churches whom the RCL serves put these readings to use. There are a handful of Lutheran, United Methodist, and other mainline Protestant congregations that have Ascension Day services, but these churches are the exception, not the rule.
While Ascension Day services are uncommon, many Protestant churches remember the event on the following Sunday, which is either the Seventh Sunday of Easter or Ascension Sunday. Still, in my lifetime of Protestantism, I can’t remember the Ascension every being a point of emphasis. In nearly a decade of teaching Sunday school and editing curriculum for a major Protestant publishing house, I don’t recall ever working on a lesson devoted solely to the Ascension. Jesus’ trial, execution, and resurrection, on the other hand have been the topics of many lessons. So have Jesus’ birth and baptism. So has Pentecost. The Ascension, on the other hand, doesn’t come up very often.
Theologian and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright makes the case in his popular 2008 book Surprised by Hope that the Ascension is “a central and vital feature” of Christian belief. It’s not something we should treat as a “strange added extra.”
Our reluctance to embrace the Ascension may have something to do with how the event has been portrayed in western art. Many paintings of the Ascension, such as those by Rembrandt and Garofalo, show Jesus literally ascending to a realm in the clouds. Such pictures made sense to Christians who subscribed to Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the cosmos in which heaven was literally above us, the outermost of several concentric spheres. Were one to go straight up, one would eventually arrive in God’s celestial realm. Such an understanding of creation is responsible for us referring to Jesus’ return to God’s heavenly realm as the “Ascension,” meaning the act of ascending or going up.
A more recent depiction of the Ascension with a similar cosmology is the popular phone app "Jesus Jump," in which the risen Christ bounces from cloud to cloud on his way to heaven. The game ends when Jesus misses a cloud and falls back to earth, with really complicated things theologically. (The markers of Jesus Jump don't really approach the Ascension with the same reverence that Rembrandt and Garofalo did.)
Those with a contemporary, scientific understanding of the atmosphere and the cosmos know that it would take Jesus several billion years, traveling at the speed of light to reach the edge of the known universe and enter a transcendent realm beyond. It would take him another several billion years to return.
Perhaps because of our knowledge of the size of the universe and the laws that govern it, we think of the Ascension as more of a disapparition. He couldn’t stick around on earth forever, so one day he said good-bye to his disciples and disappeared. Or we flirt with Gnosticism, assuming that Jesus somehow dematerialized and traveled to heaven like some sort of disembodied soul.
Maybe we just don’t have the language to explain what happened on the fortieth day after the first Easter. But even as we struggle to describe the Ascension, we cannot dismiss it. Jesus’ ascent is important for a couple reasons:
- First, it makes clear the difference between Resurrection and resuscitation. Scripture includes a handful of examples of people returning to life. God, working through Elijah, brings back to life the son of the widow of Zarephath; Jesus resuscitates his friend Lazarus and the young daughter of a man named Jairus; the Apostle Paul restores the life of Eutychus, a boy who falls out of a window and to his death during one of Paul’s long-winded sermons.
All of these people were dead and came back to life, but all would die again. Jesus was different. While Lazarus’s resuscitated body was the same body he’d had before he died, Jesus’ resurrected body was perfect and imperishable. And while Lazarus’s body would eventually end up back in the tomb, Jesus’ body would end up in heaven.
- Second, Jesus ascended to heaven in his resurrected body. He did not travel there as a disembodied spirit. The Gospels tell us that the resurrected Jesus broke bread (Luke 24:28-32), ate fish (Luke 24:38-43), allowed his disciple Thomas to touch his wounds (John 20:26-28), and cooked breakfast (John 21:1-14). He had flesh; he could touch and be touched; he could interact with people and objects in tangible ways. Yet his body was eternal.
Paul refers to the risen Christ as "the first crop of the harvest of those who have died" (1 Corinthians 15:20). We are the remaining crop, and we can look forward to a resurrection body like Jesus': an imperishable, yet physical, body. We can look forward to an embodied eternity, not merely a spiritual one.
The Ascension helps Christians better understand our eschatology (beliefs about the end times or the fulfillment and culmination of all things). It reminds us that we don’t look forward to a day when our spirits float away from our body and eventually wind up in heaven. Rather, we look forward to a day when heaven and earth are made new and we walk with Jesus, and one another, in perfected bodies.
Through his resurrection, Jesus demonstrated that death doesn’t have the final say and that God is more powerful than human mortality. Through his ascension, Jesus showed us that the resurrected body, while human, isn’t bound by the limitations of humanity. Jesus didn’t just return to life. He continues to live. For that reason we have hope that we will continue to live as well.
Immediately before his ascent Jesus told his followers that the Holy Spirit would come upon them and give them power and that they would be his witnesses “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Still today, we are witnesses of the ascended Christ. We are called to give people hope for an embodied eternity by being the embodied presence of Christ in the world right now. Through our words, our presence, and our compassion we can give people a glimpse of the future that Christ has in store for us.
You may not have a feast on Ascension Day, and there’s a good chance that your church won’t have a special service planned. And that’s OK. But in the coming days—perhaps during private devotional time on Thursday, as a prelude to a Bible study or Sunday school lesson, or as part of worship on Sunday—take time to reflect (and to encourage others to reflect) on the Ascension and its importance in the Christian story.