Yesterday in the Christian church calendar was Ascension Day, the day we celebrate Christ ascending into heaven 40 days after his resurrection and now sits at “the right hand of God the Father.”
The Useless Ascension
The idea of “Ascension” doesn’t seem to get a lot of play nowadays in the Church. This, in spite of the fact that it is an essential part of all the Church’s earliest doctrinal formulations, and the subject of the most-quoted Old Testament verse in the New Testament:
The Lord says to my lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.”
Compared to other, non-creedal things like Hell, homosexuality, and “attacks on biblical authority”, the Ascension isn’t really talked about. Maybe this is because the Ascension isn’t really a “doctrine”–it’s an “event” and a “declaration”.
And we western Christians love our systematic “doctrines” that we can pick apart as nauseam and/or figure out how we can “apply it to our lives” in such a way that we can feel like we’re “good Christians.” But honestly, the Ascension doesn’t have many direct applications for today.
The earliest Christians in Scripture appealed to this event as the primary proof of Jesus’ divinity and “lordship”, but beyond that, the Ascension can be seen as not very “useful”. There’s not much we can “do” with it.
Which is precisely why it’s so valuable. More than many other aspects of the Gospel and Christianity, the Ascension isn’t an “idea” to mull or unpack, but rather “news” to receive.
There are some beautiful aspects to it, though, that I’d like to point out on this Ascension Day, to help us meditate on it and rest in the cosmic beauty of this reality.
Ascension: God’s Gift for us and to us
In today’s series of readings and prayers from the Book of Common Prayer, there was a reading from Psalm 8, which contained these lines:
O Lord, our Sovereign,
You have set your glory above the heavens….
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
… what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet….
In this one Psalm, there is both an expression of God ascending his glory above the heavens, as well as ascending humanity above the rest of Creation so that “all things [are] under their feet” (sound familiar?).
Though this Psalm is clearly talking about how humans in general are the ones ascended above Creation, the author of Hebrews interprets these verses as talking about how Jesus specifically is exalted and ascended above Creation.
I don’t think we have to choose here. I think these are both revealing different truths in the same words. Ascension isn’t just something God does “for” us in Jesus, it’s something he does “to” us in Jesus–it’s something we can taste and experience and know. It’s something that we can participate in as people joined to the Creator, Ruling, Lording God.
And this is a present truth, not some possible truth waiting for our right response, behavior, or maturity–it’s the good gift of a good God who loves us and invites us into his own experience as God.
[God’s] great might [was] worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places…. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church….
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked… But God, being rich in mercy… made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 1:15-2:7)
The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. (Revelation 3:21)
The hinge around which the Bible turns
Throughout the Bible and the ancient world, one’s “right hand” was the active, willful part of a person It symbolizes the part of one’s self that turns their intentions into action. This is the significance of the whole “right hand of God” part to this idea.
I know that the Scriptural order and chapters and verses are not “inspired” and were established well after the Bible was “canonized”, but this is too much fun not to share.
Psalm 119 is the longest chapter of the entire Bible. Psalm 117 is the shortest. Right between those two psalms is Psalm 118 (duh). But the fun part is this: Psalm 118 is the exact middle of the Bible. And what are the middle verses of this middle chapter? What are the words that act as the hinge of the Bible?
I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me.
The Lord is my strength and my song;
he has become my salvation.
Glad songs of salvation are in the tents of the righteous:
“The right hand of the Lord does valiantly,
the right hand of the Lord exalts,
the right hand of the Lord does valiantly!”
I shall not die, but I shall live,
and recount the deeds of the Lord.
I could not think of a more beautiful and succinct summary of redemption’s story.
Though the enemy had pushed us (that’s what the Hebrew implies), and we were falling, the Lord has “become” our salvation in Christ.
Jesus, the one ascended to the right hand of God, has done valiantly and has exalted us. And so we sing as those made righteous by his acts.
And finally, we have the privilege of being among those who will not die, but will live eternally, recounting the deeds of the Lord, exalted and ascended to his right hand.
Happy freaking Ascension Day.