Today in the Christian Church Calendar is Ascension Day, where we celebrate Christ ascending into heaven after his resurrection and now sitting at “the right hand of God the Father.”
The Useless Ascension
“Ascension” doesn’t get a lot of attention nowadays in the Church. This, in spite of the fact that it’s an essential part of all the Church’s earliest doctrinal formulations. Additionally, the New Testament sees it as the primary proof of Jesus’ divinity and “lordship” and it’s 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.'” (Remember this verse.)
Maybe we neglect this 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 ad 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 isn’t “useful” to us in that way. 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 and let it act on us.
Ascension: God’s Gift for us and to us
In today’s readings and prayers from the Book of Common Prayer, we are given Psalm 8, which contains these lines:
O Lord, our Sovereign,
You have set your glory above the heavens….
…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….
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 Jesus specifically being exalted and ascended above Creation.
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 we can participate in as people joined to the Creator, Ruling, Lording God.
Our Ascension in Christ 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. It is true about you and me, now and forever. We share in the Ascension, in all its benefits and beauties. (See Ephesians 1:15-2:7 and Revelation 3:21)
The hinge around which the Bible turns
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?*
The Lord is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.
There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:
“The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;
the right hand of the Lord is exalted;
the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.”
I shall not die, but I shall live,
and recount the deeds of the Lord.
I can’t think of a more beautiful and succinct summary of redemption’s story.
In the ancient world, one’s “right hand” was the active, willful part of a person (sorry, Southpaws). It symbolized the part of one’s self that turns their intentions into reality. Jesus is God’s willful intention turned into action.
Though 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.
*I know that the Scriptural order and chapters and verses are not “inspired” and were established well after the Bible was “canonized”, but I got too much of a kick out of that not to share.