Why Jesus’ Ascension Matters
Today is Ascension Day, the 40th day after Easter. In the words of the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (1997), it marks “the solemn close of the post-Resurrection appearances and signifies the rule of Christ in the present (cf. 1 Cor. 15:25).” My preoccupation today is why Christians seem to emphasize the first half of this definition more than the second?
I’ll hazard a guess, rooted in my own experience, that most of us are oblivious to its significance. We’ve simply never given it much thought. We read the accounts of the Ascension as the denouement to the passion narrative in Mark, Luke, and John. We all-too-readily locate the climax of the narratives in the death and resurrection of Jesus — the resurrection simply being too dazzling, too earth-shattering, for us to take much notice of the adjacent and final act of Jesus in which he “was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19).
I think it’s quite possible, too, that we find the resurrection more compelling because it offers the hope of restoration, regeneration, and renewal. It’s a reassurance, a comfort, to end the story there. But the Ascension subtly reframes this triumph over death and subsumes it to the sovereignty of God and the advent of His kingdom. And this reality unsettles us. We’re comfortable with the modern-day separation of the political from the spiritual (justified by uniquely American interpretations of Matthew 22:21?). We prefer to see ourselves as redeemed sinners rather than as obsequious servants.
The Anglican scholar N. T. Wright explains the manifestly political implications of the Ascension in his monumental work The Resurrection of the Son of God, “To any reader of the time, and to plenty of others in the wider pagan world, the story of Jesus’s ascension would have had an immediate counter-imperial impact, cognate with what a devout Jew might have picked up from the explicit echoes of Daniel 7.”
By Paul’s day the custom was well established of emperors being declared to be divine after their death, with the evidence produced consisting of one or two witnesses who had glimpsed the soul of the dead emperor ascending towards the heavens. Augustus heralded a convenient comet as the soul of his adopted father Julius Caesar; at Titus’ funeral, an eagle was released from the pyre to fly aloft. The parallel with the Christian story is not exact, because the point was then that the new emperor was to be hailed as ‘son of god’ on the basis of the divinization of his predecessor, whereas the early Christians reserved that title for Jesus, now himself raised and exalted.
The Christian ascension stories cannot be derived from the pagan ones; but they would certainly have been heard, in the second half of the first century, as counter-imperial. Jesus was lord, and Caesar was not. Not only Jesus’ resurrection, but also his ascension, carried inescapable political significance. . . . Luke has not developed the point in a Pauline way. He simply uses the story, with a minimum of embroidery, as the basis for a book in which he tells of the subversive gospel going out, against fierce opposition, to announce Israel’s god and his worldwide kingdom and, in particular, to proclaim Jesus as lord and Messiah. (page 656)
The Ascension confirms that identification, which begins in the synoptic gospels with the genealogy of Jesus, establishing him firmly within the royal Davidic line. As such, I suspect that, for most of us, the ramifications are too big, too intimidating, and too intrusive on our modern-day sense of things.
Further, the Ascension transforms — or, rather, enlarges — our understanding of the gospel from assent to a historical event to submission to a present reality. (For more on this point, see this Chuck B. Colson’s article at the Gospel Coalition.) It makes qualitatively different claims on us, asking us to see through the political structures of our day to the rule of Christ and to live our lives in accordance with that supreme order, that governing will.
But perhaps this majestic idea, this awesome framework, is simply too heady for us. Maybe the concept of a kingdom, with its medieval or feudal connotations, is so far removed from our democratic experience that it leaves us cold. So how does it ever become personal? How does it, in our language of the day, become relational?
I am not entirely sure myself. I’d be interested to know what others think. But two things occur to me right off. First, I wonder if it allows us to reconceive healing prayer, not as sending our supplications heavenward, but rather as laying claim to a reality, a resurrected and restored order, that is already present. Second, I wonder if this vision of God’s political order fills in some details about the gospel that hold greater appeal to men. It has often been observed (see, for instance, here and here) that there are more women than men in our pews and that the message of the gospel, rendered in the language of love and grace, resonates more readily with women than with men. The Ascension offers men an opportunity to understand or to contextualize their faith, and their call, in more manly terms: courage, self-sacrifice, obedience, fealty, order.
The Ascension gives us all an identity in Christ, not as slaves (our great anxiety and fear), but as full citizens in the city of God and as vassals of a mighty king.