Thoughts on ascension day redux...

Sometimes it takes a few days of wandering around with an idea before it takes real shape and form, yes?  The late Raymond Brown of Union Theological Seminary - one of the Roman Catholic scholars of the Johannine writings who really cracked open the text - used to say that whenever he was preaching:  first he spent time with the Biblical text in study, then he spent time thinking about his contemporary context only to be followed with a few days of "walking around with the text" before coming to his conclusion.  "Jesus used to walk around a lot," he told us, "and we would do well to spend some walking around time with the text before coming to our own conclusions, too."

That was good advice - something I practice often - even if I still do my Sunday writing on Tuesday:  walking around with the text for the rest of the week gives me time to see what the Spirit might be saying to my soul, my church or my world.  No wonder what comes out of my mouth in worship is only loosely related to my earlier writing!  So goes it with my thoughts about the Ascension of Christ from a Reformed perspective...

All week long I've been wondering:  why is it that we Protestants give so little attention to this fascinating and challenging feast day?  In all of our founding documents - the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Cathecism, Luther's Cathecism and the Second Helvitic Confession to say nothing of the historic creeds - there is a simple acceptance of the Ascension as essential.  The Apostles' Creed, for example, puts it like this:



I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Amen.
The Ascension was reaffirmed during the Reformation and has been a foundational insight in our tradition since 1517.  Yet, not only is this doctrine currently embarrassing - "To put it crudely, had Jesus simply ascended vertically into space, we would by now expect him to be somewhere in the outer reaches of the solar system" as one blogger put it - but also conspicuous by its absence in contemporary reformed and reforming theology.  A Reformed believer from Calvin College, who was raised in Indonesia, restates the importance of the Ascension like this:

John Calvin taught that Christ truly inaugurated his kingdom only at his ascension to heaven. Calvin believed that as Christ withdrew his bodily presence from his people, he began to rule heaven and earth with more immediate power. Calvin was also sure that Christ’s spiritual presence could only come after his ascension (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.16.14). He explained that Christ’s ascension to heaven is beneficial to our faith in two ways. First, it opened the way into the heavenly kingdom that had been closed after the fall. And second, Christ in heaven has been our constant advocate and intercessor (2.16.16). By the power of his Spirit, Christ is now present with his people all over the world in his Word and in the sacraments. (Yudha Thianto @ http://www.reformedworship.org/article/march-2012/he-ascended-heaven)

Another Reformed pastor, Paul Detterman, askes: So why do modern and postmodern North American worshipers shy away from a full-on embrace and celebration of Christ’s ascension?

Ascension Day is traditionally celebrated on the fortieth day after Easter. But in many congregations we’ve successfully (if unintentionally) trained our worshipers to think the season of Easter is over less than forty hours after the guest trumpeter gets paid and the memorial lilies have been distributed. By the fortieth day after Easter, we’ve moved on to other rites and rituals: graduation parties, strict observance of the spring gardening calendar, and the beginning of the liturgical season of Little League, to name a few.

Familiar patterns of worship don’t help either. The Day of Ascension, strictly observed, calls for worship on a Thursday. As a parish pastor, I thought this was an amazingly cool thing to do—and apparently so did the four or five other people who usually showed up for Ascension Day services. For many Protestant churchgoers, off-Sunday worship ranks right up there with arena football as a less-than-interesting derivation of “the way things ought to be.”

Gradually, however, the importance and joy of Ascension can even captivate pragmatic churchgoers! New generations of worshipers (for whom Sunday is only one among many options) are discovering the power of mystery and the beauty of liturgy. Ascension provides a direct link into the unique power of the gospel.

Whether we observe it on Thursday or Sunday, the two great overarching themes of this celebration define the very core of our faith: Christ is Lord of all, and we are commissioned by Christ to live in this world as people who know it. Congregational vitality and mission, as well as our individual discipleship, can benefit from a more intentional observance of Ascension.

The British Jesuit, Damian Howard, suggests that the contemporary church has become so obsessed with relevance - and so driven by "what's in it for me" thinking - that we've created an "eastery spirituality" that is no longer connected to the kingdom of God.  And as N.T. Wright makes clear, Easter and Pentecost only make sense from the perspective of the kingdom.

(Ask believers) what, in a nutshell, is the core of the New Testament message? And there are doubtless as many answers to that question as there are Christians, but most of them would probably involve one or more of a bundle of ideas: resurrection–reconciliation–new life–triumph over sin and death, all very good, very Eastery answers – and all, incidentally, very much about us human creatures.

The centrality of these notions to most Christians explains both why Easter and Pentecost are so important to us and why the Ascension is not. Easter and Pentecost can be quickly established to be all about us: the promise of forgiveness and new life for us, the gift of the Spirit to us. It is not quite so clear what the Ascension has to offer us? The best answer I have been able to come up with is that Christ’s withdrawal brings about a new mode by which Christ can be present to us, intimate, yet universal and ‘interceding for us at the right hand of the Father’.

If you were to ask the same question to the New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, you would be given a subtly different response, one that puts centre stage someone other than us. For Tom Wright, the core truth of Christianity is that Jesus, and hence God, has become King. The crucified Nazarene has been raised by God to be the universal Lord. Christ’s rising from the dead is not in itself the end of the story but a vitally important part of the trajectory that takes him to his heavenly throne. Wright’s interpretation hardly denies the importance of resurrection; it just sees it as part of a bigger picture. Jesus is raised to be King. (check out Howard's full article @ http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20120516_1.htm)

The abiding conclusion from all of these thinkers points to this insight:  the Resurrection of the Lord is the beginning of Christ's heavenly journey.  "Pentecost is the echo on earth of Christ's coronation" and the Ascension in the hinge that holds it all together.  Given Christ's ascension into heaven, we can now live into compassionate and grace-filled blessings of Jesus trusting fully that Christ is present with God.  As Paul says, he intercedes for us with sighs too deep for human words.  And in this assurance, we can now live out Christ's grace - and justice - in public knowing that we are not alone in heaven or on earth. The imaginative/poetic truth is that of intimacy between the Creator and the Christ - an intimacy nourished by the Spirit - that works ALL things together for good.

Comments

Black Pete said…
My gosh--that old chestnut! :)
RJ said…
What a gas, yeah? We used to do it in Tucson all the time - got the old hippies hopping and the youngsters smiling - and every now and again still makes me laugh. Blessings to you.

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