A cross silhouetted in the sunChristmas and Easter we celebrate every year, but there is a third holy day we have almost forgotten. Ascension is the missing festival in modern church calendars. It was not always so. The early church celebrated the ascension of Jesus as much as his birth and resurrection

.Why has Ascension slipped into obscurity? Perhaps it is because it occurred forty days after Easter which always puts it on a Thursday. People now-a-days are reluctant to attend church any day but Sunday. Perhaps it is because Ascension competes with Mother's Day, a modern holy day scheduled at the same season. Perhaps it is because Ascension commemorates a doctrine which is quietly dying of benign neglect. This, I fear, is the most significant reason we no longer celebrate Ascension.

Before we discard the ascension of Jesus into the attic of forgotten Church festivals and doctrines, let us take another look to see why the writers of scripture reported it and the church has affirmed it in the Apostles' Creed for nearly two thousand years.

Luke concludes his gospel with these words: "Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God" (Luke 24:50-53).

The resurrection of Jesus without the ascension of Jesus leaves us with the problem of what happened to Jesus' body. The gospels are clear that the body which was laid in the tomb on Friday evening left the tomb on Sunday morning. When Jesus appeared to his disciples, it was in his body. They were seeing a real body, not a vision. If it were only a vision, then it was certainly the most deceptive and lying vision on record. Jesus said, "Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have" (Luke 24:39).

A phantom or hallucination can just fade away, but a body has to go somewhere. If Jesus' resurrected body didn't ascend, as the scriptures say, what happened to it? Luke tells us and I believe him.

The ascension was a factual miracle. Science can explain only the phenomena of this world, i.e. nature. The joints between this world and the next, i.e. miracles, are by definition supernatural and non-scientific. Yes, it really happened and if you were there with a camera, you could have taken a picture of it, but there is no natural, scientific explanation for it.

The ascension of Jesus was a visual metaphor. The world is round, so going up really means going out. But the direction he went is not significant. Heaven is not a location within the visible universe, but a different dimension of reality. Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There it is!' For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you" (Luke 17:20-21).

The astronauts who went to the moon were no nearer to heaven than we. Russian astronaut Titov's ridicule that he didn't see God or heaven while in orbit came as no surprise to us. What would have really shocked biblical theologians is if he had seen heaven out there.

The ascension doesn't mean Jesus went from one place to another within the created universe. Removal from sight, not departure from earth, is its true significance. What happened at his ascension was no different from what happened during the prior 40-day period when he would vanish from their sight now and then. It did not mean that he had gone somewhere. He simply disappeared and reappeared from time to time. His final removal from sight had to be so convincing that they would no longer expect him to return until his final appearing at the end of time.

The ascension means the presence, not the absence, of Jesus. The apostles did not understand the ascension to mean that Jesus was no longer with them. They expressed no grief or disappointment. Instead they "returned to Jerusalem with great joy" (Luke 24:52). That's not the emotion you feel when you lose your best friend. The ascension did not mean they lost something. They gained something. Jesus' ascension brought him closer to them and to us than he was before. He left us on Mount Olive so that he might be with us in Chicago or Los Angeles or London. He was taken from our sight so that he might come to us wherever we are.

His last words were, "Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20). We can neither see him nor escape him. He is able to invade all the power structures on earth. Closed and barred doors still mean nothing to him.

Jesus is with presidents and prime ministers, whether they are aware of him or
not. He stands behind black robed judges and passes judgment on them. He enters the halls of science and learning to bless those who seek truth and rebuke those who pervert it. He attends our cathedrals and chapels of worship just as he did years ago. And he still says the same things. He rebukes the false prophets and hypocrites and blesses those who worship in spirit and truth. He sends the proud Pharisees home with their pride, and the penitent Publicans with his mercy. He sees the sick, the poor, the outcast, the abused. He knows all about the injustice of modern life, all the hatred and discrimination, the violence and prejudice. He walks into our homes with all their joys and sorrows, their jealousy and love, their selfishness and generosity, their vengeance and forgiveness. The ascension means the presence of Jesus, not the absence of Jesus from us.

The ascension means the power, not the weakness, of Jesus. "He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit… who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him" (1 Peter 3:18, 22). Invisibility increases his power in the world. By faith the blind can see him, the deaf can hear him, the lame can walk with him and the dead can live with him—all at the same time! He is not only invisible; he is invincible.

He is with us not only to observe but to act. He ascended into heaven not to explore the universe but to rule it. "When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive… 'He ascended,' what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things" (Ephesians 4:8-10).

Yes, "He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty." From there he directs all the traffic of history with all its evil to the ends which he has set for it. If you center your life on Christ, you get a new sense of direction, a new perspective which gives meaning and purpose to human existence, something to make life worth living or losing. You are marching through time with him who is the Master of it.

You don't have to do what people had to do 2,000 years ago to be near Jesus. People can meet him in 100 million different sick rooms on the same day. Jesus can put his nail-pieced hands on every fevered brow and spend long hours with the lonely, the aged, the sorrowing and the discouraged. No door is closed to him and no distance too far for him to travel.

Ascension means the success, not the failure, of Jesus. He didn't come to earth on an inspection tour. He came on a rescue mission. Leaving it doesn't mean he has abandoned his cause, but that he has completed the earthly phase and now continues in heaven where he is preparing a place for you (John 14:3).

The sending forth of the Church by Jesus continues the sending forth of Jesus by God (John 20:21). What Jesus was to his world, the Church is to her world throughout the ages. By ascending into heaven he intends that you get on with his business. "If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God" (Colossians 3:1).

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