Ascension Day — the Risen One returns home
The Ascension of Christ is a Christian holy day about which few people know very much. Somewhat underrepresented, it lies concealed between Easter and Pentecost. And yet, this day is immensely significant for salvation.
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, had risen from the dead on Easter Sunday. The women had come to the tomb very early in the morning, but the tomb was empty. This is probably the most heavily loaded sentence in the entire gospel: His tomb was empty! The people of the time could barely comprehend what had happened — just as little as the people of today. They were amazed, they were annoyed, they were irritated, they were shocked. Just about every possible human emotion came to expression. Joy—true joy over the fact that Jesus Christ had really resurrected—only emerged later on.
Forty days with His church
The Risen One spent another 40 days with His church on earth. He showed Himself here and there, and allowed others to see Him and touch Him. This is related in all the gospels, in the Acts of the Apostles, and in the first epistle to the Corinthians. This period of 40 days between His resurrection and Ascension allowed Jesus to show Himself as the "Living One", as the One who had conquered death.
The gospel according to Mark tells of His ascension into heaven in only a few words: "So then, after the Lord had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere" (Mark 16: 19, 20).
Ascension means fulfilling our commission
The Acts describe further events associated with the ascension of the Lord: "Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, 'Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven'" (Acts 1: 9-11).
This is a key statement of the early apostolic church: the Apostles were not merely to gaze after the Lord, but rather direct their eyes forward in order to fulfil their commission and spread the gospel throughout the world. Their commission will only be fulfilled at the return of the Lord.
In early Christendom there was not yet any celebration to commemorate the ascension of Christ. It was only in the fourth century that Christians in certain parts of the Eastern Church began to commemorate the fortieth day after Easter as the feast of the "Ascension of Christ". This custom also established itself in the Western Church starting in the fifth century. Thus the celebration of the Ascension of the Risen One is part of the original content of the Christian faith.
A profession of the church
In the Apostles' Creed we read: "[...] On the third day He rose again. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead." This is also expressed in the Second Article of Faith of the New Apostolic Church.
And our Catechism states: "Jesus Christ referred to His return to the Father in various ways (John 3: 13; 16: 28; 20: 17). On the fortieth day after Easter, He, together with His Apostles, went to the mount called Olivet and gave them instructions for their mission. Then 'He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.' From two angels the Apostles received the promise: 'This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven' (Acts 1: 3-11).
These words are also recorded in the Ninth Article of the New Apostolic Creed: 'I believe that the Lord Jesus will return as surely as He ascended into heaven' (CNAC 12.5.5). The special significance of Ascension Day is reflected in these words.
Photo: Oliver Rütten