Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Ascension of Our Lord

Unfortunately the festival of the Ascension has fallen on hard times. Like so many wonderful observances of the historic church, this festival seems to command little attention in today's church - at least among many Lutherans. Since it usually draws only a small attendance, it is easy to eliminate on the grounds of practicality.

And admittedly, this festival is probably not the easiest for many to appreciate. Unlike Easter Jesus is not appearing to a relieved band of terrorized disciples, but his very appearance is being 'hidden.' And the hiddenness of God has always been a difficult point for Christians to grasp.

So of what great value is this day? Permit me to point out a few from my perspective -
1.) His ascension signals a transition in the mission and direction of the church. Our Lord's mission of salvation was completed in the cross and empty tomb. The Comforter has been promised. The living Lord will continue his mission to all the world, but now it is through his chosen servants using the gifts of Word and Sacrament. His earthly presence is now "hidden" by the cloud, but is still 'visible' in the means which he has appointed. Note Jesus' words just prior to his ascension in Luke 24:45-49.
2.) His ascension visibly marks his exaltation again to the right hand of the Father. For a time he humbled himself among us, taking the form of a servant. But now he ascends to his rightful place of honor.
3.) His ascension directs our attention to what is yet to come. "This Jesus, who was taken away from you to heaven will come back in the same way that yo saw Him go to heaven." As we confess in the creed: "I believe in Jesus Christ....[who] ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from thence he will come to judge the living and the dead." We now await the great day of his return in glory when all things will be fulfilled. As the collect for this day also attests: "Grant, we pray, almighty God, that even as we believe your only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to have ascended into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind ascend and continually dwell there with him...."

The Ascension is truly an event of the "now, not yet" reality of the Kingdom. It is fulfillment, yet it is transitional. It is hiddenness, yet it is revelation. It is comfort, yet it is also anticipation. So it is also with the blessed dead. In heaven, yet awaiting the fulfillment of their salvation at the final resurrection.

Christians of the Reformed tradition, I believe, have always struggled with this 'tension' of the Ascension. And how they reconcile this tension unfortunately results in the denial of his real presence in the blessed Sacrament of the Altar and his real presence in the gracious waters of Holy Baptism. If you read the NIV rendering of Acts 3:21 you will see this scriptural misunderstanding right in the translation of the word itself. It reads: He [Jesus] must remain i heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything..." The Greek, however, should be translated instead as "It is necessary for heaven to receive him..."

One cannot use "who has been taken from you into heaven" to cancel out the fullness of the promise "Lo, I am with you always..." And yet that, I fear, is what is too often done. As Calvin had to have it logically laid out according to what made sense, and came up with such monstrous solutions to scripture's tensions as double predestination, so too some try to solve the tension of his ascension by claiming that the real, physical presence of Jesus is no longer tenable now that his physical appearance is taken from us.

But tension is a large part of faith and revelation. Hidden, yet revealed. Accomplished, yet waiting to be fulfilled. Thus, we walk by faith, and not by sight. And as such we also walk through this time as "pilgrims and strangers." We have no earthly city here. This is not our home. We are passing through. And the Ascension reminds us that the journey is not yet at the end.

Ascension Day is technically tomorrow, but let me wish you all a blessed festival today. May the wonderful realities of this day comfort you in your own pilgrimage here in the valley of the shadow of tears.

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