Tomorrow brings one of those almost forgotten festivals of the church - at least among Lutherans. A few still hold a midweek service with a small, but dedicated crowd. A few others transfer it over to the nearest Sunday. However, the Ascension of our Lord represents a significant event in the Easter season and one worthy of observing, whether on its own appointed day or the nearest Sunday. That said, a challenge still remains.
At our circuit pastor's meeting yesterday a retired pastor admitted the difficulty of getting a handle on a clear theme for this festival. Christmas and Easter, he admitted, were easier to find topics on which to preach. Now we are familiar with the Creed's declaration that our Lord "ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty" (Apostles' Creed). Perhaps this lies behind Dr. Pfatteicher's observation that "The Ascension is part of an enthronement festival. The coronation of Christ the King is celebrated, but so in him is the enthronement of humanity itself. John Chrysostom declared, 'Our very nature...is enthroned today high above all cherubim'" (Commentary on the Lutheran Book of Worship,1990, pages 295-296.) This last quote coincides with the appointed collect for the festival: "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, however, was originally not viewed as a separate feast, but as part of a unified fifty day festival period. Sometime after the third century this unity broke down and the Ascension was celebrated as a separate festival. In Jerusalem, according to Egeria, the Ascension and the sending of the Spirit were celebrated together on the fiftieth day. Jesus ascends and in turn sends the Spirit. The two do naturally link together. However, for those who celebrate Pentecost linking them sermonically provides repetition the pastor may want to avoid.
Adolf Adam provides two themes worth considering: "The festal Mass emphasizes both the return of Christ...and his abiding presence in the community" (The Liturgical Year: Its History and Meaning After the Reform of the Liturgy, 1979, 1981, page 88). This works well with the account from Acts 1 where the angels inform the gazing disciples that Jesus will return as He ascended, as well as the emphasis in that text on the visibility/invisibility of Jesus' presence. The Reformed would take this event as a sign that Jesus' physical presence is now locked away in heaven until the end of time. That, of course, does not bode well for real presence Christians who take Jesus' promise of being with us until the end of time as a real, physical presence celebrated regularly in the Supper. The cloud "hides" Him from their sight, it does not remove Him from their presence. This could be an important point to stress on this day, helping hearers to appreciate how Jesus dwells among us and how the Supper is a key location to appreciate that presence. Thankfully we are celebrating the Sacrament tomorrow night, so this theme could work well.
The Ascension provides a tension with which we can wrestle. In a post in 2007 I wrote: "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."
With these brief thoughts I would like to wish all a blessed Ascensiontide celebration, even if you must do so in the privacy of your personal devotions.