The Ascension of Christ is mostly overlooked as far as church holy days go. The calendar doesn’t help – Ascension is 40 days after Easter, and Easter is always on a Sunday, which solidly places Ascension on a Thursday. Every single year. And, along with most of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world, we don’t worship on Thursday. So mostly we overlook the Ascension.
Of course, we do mention it every week. Jesus’ ascension is considered important enough to have it in our creeds: “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right and of the Father.” It’s in the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed and even in the Athanasian Creed – in exactly those words, in all three of the major creeds of the Church Universal.
As important as that makes the ascension, we just really don’t know what to do with it. It doesn’t seem to really have any relevance for us right here and now. Sure, Jesus ascended to heaven and lives now with the Father, and someday we too will be in heaven with him. How does that promise for the far-off (we hope) future help us today?
God the Son goes back up to heaven where he belongs and leaves us to carry on.
But there's more to it than that. At Christmas, we celebrate the awesome mystery of God becoming one of us. Jesus came to earth, took on humans flesh, lived among us, died among us, was one of us. Even after the resurrection, Jesus was still had a human body – a resurrected body, but still human, the kind of body we can look forward to having when we too are resurrected at the end of the age.
And it’s that resurrected-human-flesh-Jesus that goes back to heaven.
Jesus goes back to the Father and takes our human flesh, takes the earthiness of creation with him.
If we say that God comes down to us at Christmas, then at Ascension, God draws us to God’s self.
There’s an old story told by one of the desert fathers, Abba Sayah. No one really knows where the story comes from, but the way I heard it, St. Anthony told it to St. Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory told it to St. Basil and Gregory Nazienzus as they sat around the campfire. It’s a story that can’t be verified, but it’s most certainly true.[i] It’s an Ascension parable.
Each of us is clinging to the ankles of the ones who have gone before us – those witnesses to the resurrection. We are being pulled into heaven – redeemed by Jesus, renewed by the Holy Spirit, re-created by the Father.
That is the story we witness to the ends of the earth. And the story we tell to our children and share over coffee and remember at a hospital bedside.
And that is why Ascension made it into all three creeds – it’s not that Jesus went back to where he came from, but that he takes us all with him.