Today is the fortieth day after Easter in the Western Church’s calendar, and thus, Ascension Day.
Many Protestant denominations don’t make much of Ascension Day, but that overlooks it’s ancient importance to Christians. Specifically, from the Apostles’ Creed:
“He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”
There is no great historical background to the celebration of the day as a special festival. John Chrysostom, Augustine, and Gregory of Nyssa all have surviving sermons about the day, however.
The typical New Testament liturgical readings for the day are something like this:
Luk 24:45-53 NET. Then he opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures, (46) and said to them, “Thus it stands written that the Christ would suffer and would rise from the dead on the third day, (47) and repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (48) You are witnesses of these things. (49) And look, I am sending you what my Father promised. But stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (50) Then Jesus led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands, he blessed them. (51) Now during the blessing he departed and was taken up into heaven. (52) So they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, (53) and were continually in the temple courts blessing God.
Act 1:3-11 NET. To the same apostles also, after his suffering, he presented himself alive with many convincing proofs. He was seen by them over a forty-day period and spoke about matters concerning the kingdom of God. (4) While he was with them, he declared, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait there for what my Father promised, which you heard about from me. (5) For John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (6) So when they had gathered together, they began to ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (7) He told them, “You are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. (8) But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth.” (9) After he had said this, while they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud hid him from their sight. (10) As they were still staring into the sky while he was going, suddenly two men in white clothing stood near them (11) and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking up into the sky? This same Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come back in the same way you saw him go into heaven.”
The classic reading from the Church Fathers is, not surprisingly, from Augustine:
“Today our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven; let our hearts ascend with him. Listen to the words of the Apostle: If you have risen with Christ, set your hearts on the things that are above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God; seek the things that are above, not the things that are on earth. For just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies.
Christ is now exalted above the heavens, but he still suffers on earth all the pain that we, the members of his body, have to bear. He showed this when he cried out from above: Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? and when he said: I was hungry and you gave me food.
Why do we on earth not strive to find rest with him in heaven even now, through the faith, hope and love that unites us to him? While in heaven he is also with us; and we while on earth are with him. He is here with us by his divinity, his power and his love. We cannot be in heaven, as he is on earth, by divinity, but in him, we can be there by love.
He did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven. The fact that he was in heaven even while he was on earth is borne out by his own statement: No one has ever ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven.
These words are explained by our oneness with Christ, for he is our head and we are his body. No one ascended into heaven except Christ because we also are Christ: he is the Son of Man by his union with us, and we by our union with him are the sons of God. So the Apostle says: Just as the human body, which has many members, is a unity, because all the different members make one body, so is it also with Christ. He too has many members, but one body.
Out of compassion for us he descended from heaven, and although he ascended alone, we also ascend, because we are in him by grace. Thus, no one but Christ descended and no one but Christ ascended; not because there is no distinction between the head and the body, but because the body as a unity cannot be separated from the head.”
The apostles explain the importance of the Ascension in some passages:
Act 2:32-36 NET. This Jesus God raised up, and we are all witnesses of it. (33) So then, exalted to the right hand of God, and having received the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father, he has poured out what you both see and hear. (34) For David did not ascend into heaven, but he himself says, ‘The Lord said to my lord,: “Sit at my right hand (35) until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” ‘ (36) Therefore let all the house of Israel know beyond a doubt that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ.”
Act 5:31-32 NET. God exalted him to his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. (32) And we are witnesses of these events, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”
Eph 1:20-23 NET. This power he exercised in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms (21) far above every rule and authority and power and dominion and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. (22) And God put all things under Christ’s feet, and he gave him to the church as head over all things. (23) Now the church is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Heb 7:21-8:1 NET. but Jesus did so with a sworn affirmation by the one who said to him, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever’ ” — (22) accordingly Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant. (23) And the others who became priests were numerous, because death prevented them from continuing in office, (24) but he holds his priesthood permanently since he lives forever. (25) So he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. (26) For it is indeed fitting for us to have such a high priest: holy, innocent, undefiled, separate from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. (27) He has no need to do every day what those priests do, to offer sacrifices first for their own sins and then for the sins of the people, since he did this in offering himself once for all. (28) For the law appoints as high priests men subject to weakness, but the word of solemn affirmation that came after the law appoints a son made perfect forever. (8:1) Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We have such a high priest, one who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven,
Heb 2:9-18 NET. but we see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by God’s grace he would experience death on behalf of everyone. (10) For it was fitting for him, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. (11) For indeed he who makes holy and those being made holy all have the same origin, and so he is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, (12) saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers; in the midst of the assembly I will praise you.” (13) Again he says, “I will be confident in him,” and again, “Here I am, with the children God has given me.” (14) Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he likewise shared in their humanity, so that through death he could destroy the one who holds the power of death (that is, the devil), (15) and set free those who were held in slavery all their lives by their fear of death. (16) For surely his concern is not for angels, but he is concerned for Abraham’s descendants. (17) Therefore he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in things relating to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people. (18) For since he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.
Jesus Himself explained the Ascension so: Joh 16:7-15 NET. But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I am going away. For if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you. (8) And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong concerning sin and righteousness and judgment — (9) concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; (10) concerning righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; (11) and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. (12) “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. (13) But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. For he will not speak on his own authority, but will speak whatever he hears, and will tell you what is to come. (14) He will glorify me, because he will receive from me what is mine and will tell it to you. (15) Everything that the Father has is mine; that is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what is mine and will tell it to you.
Thus, in simple terms, Ascension Day marks the culmination of the Earthly work of Jesus Christ, but the beginning of His heavenly work for His church. It also points to the great gift of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. It is plainly a day all Christians should remember as very important.
I’m running a bit late here, but have a blessed Ascension Day.