Ascension: so far and yet so close

An end that marked a beginning: by ascending to heaven Jesus Christ did not create distance between Himself and us, but actually came closer to us. Here are some thoughts on Ascension Day, which falls within Eastertide.

Easter is not over yet. In fact, the liturgical season of Eastertide and all that goes with it lasts fifty days and culminates with Pentecost Sunday. Ascension Day, marking Christ’s ascension into heaven, is celebrated on the fortieth day after Easter. The occasion: it seems that Jesus is abandoning His disciples for a second time. The first time He left them, on Good Friday, the disciples hit rock bottom. But now, on Ascension, the events of Easter have a completely different effect on the disciples. The famous theologian and songwriter, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, describes its effects with the words: “Anyone who knows Easter cannot despair.”

Between Christ’s resurrection and His ascension

The Lord’s post-resurrection appearances counteracted rumours that His disciples had stolen the body, and they bore witness to the fact that Christ had truly risen.

Following His resurrection, Christ again spent time with His disciples. First, He convinced sceptics like Thomas that He had truly resurrected, then He taught His disciples again, and gave them their mission and authority. Besides the Great Commission, He also gave them comfort during this time and again promised them the coming of the Holy Spirit. “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1: 8).

Ascension then

His disciples did not accompany Jesus to the cross, and they could not at first understand that He had resurrected from the dead. But they witnessed His ascension to heaven. They themselves experienced how the human nature of Jesus finally entered the glory of God. This experience helped them to not feel abandoned this time and feel that they needed to lock themselves up in a room. In fact, they returned to Jerusalem full of joy, to the place where they had until shortly before hidden themselves full of fear. Back in their lodgings they gathered with the women, prayed, and prepared for the feast of Pentecost.

Ascension today

Many biblical passages indicate that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God. This is also described in the Second Article of Faith. Jesus’ service does not end at His Father’s side, but He is our advocate and makes intercession for us in this highest of all places. What a reassuring thought that Christ continues to intercede for His own, as He already expressed in His high-priestly prayer: “And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth. I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word” (John 17: 19–20).

Ascension gives answers

Through His ascension, Christ still answers questions today: “What lies ahead?” or “Where am I welcome?” However, the answers are not limited to the question of where we are going, but there are also answers to question of “How do I get there?”

Jesus Himself is the way we must follow in order to be able to live in truth and to have eternal life. So this is not a journey into the unknown, but by following Jesus this is a journey with Him. Jesus is our compass and companion.

Ascension means proximity

Ascension is not synonymous with separation and a distant reunion. Jesus has already anticipated the goal, namely eternal fellowship with God, and so it is possible for us already today to meet God. With the ascension of Jesus and the events of Pentecost that followed God did not distance Himself from human beings, but drew nearer to us. Or as Martin Luther said about Christ: “When He was on earth, He was far from us, but since He is in heaven, He is near to us.”

This Christ is near to us in His church, in His word and the sacraments, and in our love of our neighbour. The believing congregation is always an expectant congregation, and is impatient and full of longing and anticipation of Christ’s return.

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Simon Heiniger
Christian holidays, Ascension