In Canada, as well as in the United States, we like to bunch our holidays together. We like to get them as close to Sunday as we can so that we can have a long weekend every month. North of the border we may not even remember what the occasion is for the holiday; we just refer to it as May-long-weekend, or whatever month it may be. We love our holidays. After all, it means time off from school or work. There is some extra time to spend with family and friends. And, who knows, there may even be a parade.
That’s what makes it so strange when one of the great religious holy days has been lost in the shuffle. Religious holy days seem to be important even for people who are not religious. What person regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof doesn’t celebrate Christmas in one way or another? People may substitute a man in a red suit for the true meaning of the day, but everybody seems to make a big deal out of Christmas.
You want to stimulate the economy? Make it some big holiday. Celebrate the birth of a couple of our presidents by buying a new high-definition television. Celebrate the independence of our country by buying all kinds of fireworks. Celebrate October 31 by buying all kinds of masks and candy. But there are no Hallmark cards, no days off from school, or Best Buy sales on Ascension Day. Even most calendars decorated with Bible verses do not include Ascension Day among all the other days that they list.
The ascension of Jesus occurred forty days after Jesus rose from the dead. It is recorded in a matter-of-fact way in Acts 1.
So we count forty days, and there is this great holy day for us to celebrate. But we don’t. Why has this holiday been lost? Why don’t people close their offices and their factories to celebrate the ascension of Jesus into heaven? Is it because it isn’t true? Is it because it isn’t all that important? Is it not meaningful? Those are the three questions we will look at in this article.
Is It True?
First, has Ascension Day been forgotten because we don’t believe that it is true? That’s a good question to ask, because if it isn’t true then we don’t need to celebrate it. In fact, we shouldn’t celebrate it.
We have to admit that the ascension of Jesus is a hard thing to believe. It is an event that contradicts our view of the world. We know enough science to know that objects, let alone human beings, do not rise up into the heavens without some kind of propellant vehicle.
Of course, if you refuse to believe that Jesus could ascend into heaven under His own power, you have to admit that the events that surround Christmas and Easter also are unbelievable from a scientific standpoint. Even so, we fully acknowledge that Mary, a virgin, conceived Jesus through the special power of the Holy Spirit of God and that when He was born He was born as the Son of God.
We dearly recall how the angels sang to the shepherds; how wise men were led by a star in the sky to worship the one born King of the Jews. These supernatural events are the foundation of Christmas. They focus upon the humiliation of the Son of God who came into the world to save us from our sins.
Part of His humiliation was that He was beaten and spit upon, and a crown of thorns was placed upon His head. He was cruelly crucified, and to make sure that He was really dead a spear was thrust into His side.
Yet, on the Sunday morning after acknowledging that gruesome event, we all gather in church—visitors come from far and wide—to celebrate that this once-dead Jesus rose from the grave. Unbelievable! But it is all there on the pages of the Bible in black and white. Just as straightforward as the birth of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus, we read, “After He said this, He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid Him from their sight” (Acts 1:9).
The Bible insists that Jesus was born in a supernatural way; He died a most horrible death; He rose again from the dead; and He ascended into heaven. No questions asked. At least not in the Bible. It cannot be said that the ascension is more mysterious than Christmas or Easter and therefore we do not believe it or celebrate it. If you cannot believe that the ascension took place, you should not believe in the incarnation or resurrection, either.
Is It Important?
Because we do celebrate Christmas and Easter and acknowledge that the events surrounding those two holy days are true, we must also accept the supernatural events surrounding Ascension Day as being true.
So then, going back to my original question, why is this the forgotten holy day? Why does the world choose to ignore this holy day while celebrating the others? Why do so many people and churches ignore this holy day? Is it because the ascension of Jesus into heaven is an unimportant event?
We are more than willing to acknowledge that the Son of God came into the world to save us from our sins. We are more than willing to acknowledge that the sinless Jesus took upon Himself our sins and paid the price for them on the cross. We are more than willing to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, thereby conquering death for those who believe in Him.
Do you see where the focus on all of those events is? The focus is on us. He came to save us. He died to reconcile us. He rose to bring the victory to us. In our worldly, self-centered minds, we are concerned only about us.
We are more than willing to praise God for the humiliation of His Son. When it comes to His glorification, however—when He is exalted and the Father declares His work on earth as done and He rises up into the heavens to take His rightful place at the right hand of the Father—we have other plans. How dare the elders suggest that we should honor this day! It’s Thursday. I have things to do.
The irony of it all is that, even now, Jesus is working for us in heaven. He makes intercession for us before the Father. He is our Advocate.
In a way the ascension of Jesus is the most important teaching about Jesus that we have. This is the last great act He performed while on this earth. Everything else led up to His being received in the throne room of heaven where He would take His rightful place as ruler over the universe. That is where He is now.
Thank God He is there now! Can you imagine coming before the Father with all of your sins exposed and not having Jesus there at your side as your Advocate? Can you imagine not having Jesus in heaven with His nail-pierced hands saying to the great Creator of heaven and earth—the one who will not tolerate sin or permit it to come into His presence—“For this one I died. I paid the penalty for his sin.”
Is It Meaningful?
The reason this holy day is forgotten is because the ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven is where Christianity becomes meaningful for everyday life. Here is where it starts to make a difference.
Very simply put: Nobody is threatened by Christmas. The story of a baby born in a manger so many years ago is interesting and winsome. So long as Jesus is a baby the world can look at Him and sing, “Come, let us adore Him.” It does not have to sing, “Come, let us worship Him.” While the baby Jesus may be the object of our attention, the world is not threatened by Him.
Nor is the world all that threatened by Easter. Easter is a great victory. To celebrate Easter is to recognize that some great event took place in human history. Someone who was dead was reported to come alive.
Easter is like the great victory of some come-from-behind team. It is the David and Goliath story; Gideon with his three hundred men against the Philistines. All the odds are against the home team—no way can they win—and suddenly in the end they pull it off. Oh, what a great story.
Look at all the things Jesus had going against Him: the Romans, the scribes and the Pharisees, everybody in power hated Him, and He was such a nice person. Look at the stories He told and all the people He healed. Everybody loved Him, except those in power, so they killed Him.
But Jesus had the last word. He messed up their plans completely. He rose from the dead. What a great victory. We are jubilant. We are happy. Our team wins. That’s the way many people celebrate Easter. It isn’t all that threatening to them.
But the ascension is different. The important aspect of the ascension is not all the physical events that surround it. Jesus rose up into the sky before the startled eyes of His apostles. That certainly is a remarkable fact, but it is not the central fact.
The central fact is that now all authority in heaven and on earth is given over to Jesus Christ. He is ruling the world. He is alive and well—in heaven—and He comes to meet each and every one of us in His glory and in His power and His majesty. He comes to us as our ruler and demands that we respond in faith and obedience.
One day this very same Jesus will come again. Every person that ever walked upon this globe is going to see Jesus when He comes again. When He does, you will do one of two things: You will call for the mountains to fall upon you and the rocks to cover you, or you will rejoice with great joy.
One day every creature, every person, WILL bow down before Him. Willingly or unwillingly, everyone will acknowledge Jesus as Lord of lords and King of kings. One day, willingly or unwillingly, you will worship Him not just on Sunday or on Thursday but every day for all eternity.
As long as we ignore that truth Christianity doesn’t bother us all that much. We can join the crowds of Christmas in singing Christmas carols and enjoy the Easter parades, but our Christianity will not change us. We can claim to be Christians and live like the rest of the world.
As soon as we begin to see that Jesus rules over this world, we may have to change a few things in our lives. Instead of building up our American idol, we may be compelled to worship the one true God. Instead of spending hours watching television, we may be compelled to spend some time in prayer and in Bible reading. Instead of arguing with people, we may want to tell them about Jesus. Instead of holding grudges and talking behind people’s backs, we may be compelled to love them and forgive them.
That is why Ascension Day is the forgotten holy day. It is not just that we don’t want to count forty days after Easter to see when Jesus ascended. We don’t want to remember this day because, if we do, it means we have to reckon with the ascended Lord.
If Jesus of Nazareth truly ascended into heaven as the Bible teaches, then He is ruling over all of heaven and earth. He is ruling over you. That should have some effect on your life. A true acknowledgment of Jesus as the Lord of your life will change your life right down to its deepest roots. Everything you do, say, and think will be influenced by the Christ who is King in your life.
Rev. Wybren Oord is the co-pastor of Trinity United Reformed Church in Lethbridge, AB, and the editor of The Outlook.