Did you notice what day Thursday was?
After all, most calendars did not make notice of the occasion; I personally forgot to put it on our own church calendar. But Thursday was the celebration of the Ascension of Our Lord, the day on which the Church celebrates 40 days after Easter when Christ ascends into heaven and assumes His place at the right hand of the throne of God.
The Ascension of Jesus is a major Church festival, and yet it has largely been forgotten.
Most churches do not hold services to mark the day. I have also fell victim to this for several years now, as we also did not have an Ascension service, although the guilt
right now is killing me, and we will almost certainly have one next year.
The popular solution to this is to not having an Ascension service on Thursday is to then move Ascension to the following Sunday, and that is what we are doing this year as well. Of course, that does beg the question: what about the significance of that Sunday?
Does the Ascension really trump the Seventh Sunday of Easter? Should we really be celebrating Church festivals based on whether or not we like the readings for a particular Sunday?
It would be easy for us to attribute this all to a society that places a greater emphasis on sports and personal time and activities, all of which would translate into a small attendance at the Ascension Day service. And indeed, whereas the established traditions of midweek Advent and Lenten services fall in the doldrums of Winter when there is little desire on the part of many to be outside, Ascension this year was June 2nd, which for many was a beautiful Spring day. Advent and Lent during times when you want to be inside, Ascension falls during a time when you want to be at the lake or in the fields working or at a baseball game, not so much at a church service.
Much of the forgotten nature of Ascension does have to do with a general forgetfulness on the part of many of the entire concept of a Church Year. We easily remember that Christmas is always December 25th and we can generally figure out when Easter is based on all of the Easter bunny displays in the stores, but after that, the Church Year is at a loss. This forgetfulness of the Church Year is due in large part to a lack of catechesis, which is the fault of the Church and her pastors.
As a result of both schedules and poor catechesis, very few congregations celebrated Ascension Day on June 2nd, but even fewer celebrated The Visitation on May 31, or St. Philip and St. James on May 1. How many congregations will hold a special service on June 11 for St. Barnabas or June 24 for The Nativity of St. John the Baptist?
At one time, every Christian congregation celebrated all of these Feasts and Festivals on the actual day on which they occurred. There are readings and hymn suggestions for
all of these days, and yet today they are largely forgotten, except by a very small number of places.
It is of course interesting to note what the reaction of the disciples in St. Luke 24:52-53 is after Jesus ascends into heaven: they return to Jerusalem and the temple and are continually rejoicing and worshiping God. The Ascension once more showed Jesus divinity, and once and for all pushed the disciples to understand who Jesus truly
is. The disciples hardly let the weather or their still lacking knowledge of Jesus prevent them from going and worshipping.
Perhaps one of the reasons for our passing over the Ascension is what we believe about the Ascension. We confess that while Jesus is no longer physically with the disciples on the hilltop, He was still with them spiritually. And while the disciples may have left the hilltop and gone back to Jerusalem to await further instruction and the Holy Spirit, we have those instructions of sharing the Gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit to act on those instructions, and we are fulfilling those instructions; so perhaps one way to celebrate the Ascension is to not be in church, but rather to be out in situations which would be conducive to the spread of the Gospel. And of course, whether in the church building or not, we do know that Jesus is with us always.
Nevertheless, whether or not your church celebrated the Ascension, it happened. Christ
ascended to the heavens while the disciples stood on the hilltop straining their
necks for one more glimpse of Jesus. As we now strain our eyes seeking churches that celebrate the Ascension on the Thursday 40 days after Easter, we are reminded of what the disciples were motivated to do when they left that hilltop: rejoice and praise God.
There may not have been worship in many congregations for Ascension Day this year, but that does not stop us from rejoicing and praising God, and encouraging us to encourage others in their faith so that we might rejoice together on the Feasts and Festivals of the Church Year, celebrated with a full worship service or not, remembering that this Jesus who the disciples saw ascend into the heavens, will return in the same way to judge
creation at the end.