So it was in the Baptist churches in which I was raised. The church calendar had been discarded long ago, tainted with Romanism. And so it is in many contemporary congregations that seek to remove barriers to the unchurched.
But the Ascension can't be jettisoned without losing an essential part of the Christian story. Yes, there is the great triumph of the Resurrection, the victory over sin, death, and the Devil. But the Ascension is not to be conflated with the Resurrection, and to celebrate the former is not in any way to diminish the latter.
Christ "was made known in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, beheld by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in this world, taken up in glory," we are told in 1 Tim. 3:16. The Ascension marks the beginning of the church—and anticipates the Second Coming. It requires us to think in Trinitarian terms, as Christ ascends to sit at the right hand of the Father, where he is our high priest, and promises the Spirit to the church.
In "The Call to be Formed and Transformed by the Spirit of the Ascended Christ" (a chapter in The Unnecessary Pastor: Rediscovering the Call, published by Eerdmans last year), Marva Dawn urges us "to restore Ascension Day as a major church holy day." A good first step would be for each of us to work for such restoration in our congregations.
But that is a first step only. "Ascension," Dawn writes, "is a deep symbol that people don't understand any more because we so rarely discuss it." We need to talk about Ascension with children, in Sunday school, in sermons; we need to represent it visually, to make it real.
For pastors and others who want to undertake a systematic study of this neglected subject, the best book I know is Douglas Farrow's Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology (T&T Clark/Eerdmans, 1999). Farrow's book is brilliant, extraordinarily learned, and densely argued. It doesn't yield its bounty easily. But those who read it will never again be willing to relegate the Ascension to the back shelves of doctrine, to be dusted off every once in a while and then returned to obscurity.
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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See two recent Christianity Today articles on the Ascension, reposted on our Web site today:
The Day We Were Left Behind | Hungry as we are for the presence of God, the one thing we do not need is a day to remind us of God's absence. (May 18, 1998)
The Grand Farewell | We tend to focus on the way Jesus came into the world. It will pay us not to overlook the way he left. (May 18, 1992)
The Text This Week offers lectionary readings, links to fine art and films with Ascension themes, contemporary and historical sermons on the Ascension, and other resources.
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Who Won? Who Cares? | Skip the latest ballot reviews and read Italo Calvino's brilliant election novella "The Watcher." (May 14, 2001)
Infamy Indeed | John Gregory Dunne suggests imperialistic Americans got what they deserved at Pearl Harbor. (May 7, 2001)
Rantings of a Not-So-Primly Dressed Person With Too Much Time | The Chronicle of Higher Education infuses some not-so-subtle bigotry into its fetal-tissue research coverage. (Apr. 30, 2001)
Big Numbers, Big Problems | Christianity is in the midst of a massive global shift. But how much of a difference is it making in its new homelands? (Apr. 16, 2001)
DiIulio Keeps Explaining, But Is Anyone Listening? | At a media luncheon in Washington about Bush's faith-based initiatives, answered questions get asked one more time. (Apr. 9, 2001)
Public-izing Faith | Recent articles in Touchstone, Commonweal, and The New York Times serve as reminders that faith is not merely "a private thing." (Apr. 2, 2001)
How Can I Keep From Singing? | Arne Bergstrom has looked suffering square in the eye all over the world. Now he sings about hope. (Mar. 26, 2001)
To Poland, for an Evening | Once in a great while, a film like Kieslowski's The Decalogue discovers how to transport an audience. (Mar. 19, 2001)
Examining Peacocke's Plumage | The winner of the 2001 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion rejects everything resembling Christian orthodoxy, but that doesn't stop him from co-opting the language. (Mar. 12, 2001)
Are Scientists Taking Orders from Pat Robertson? | A Salon.com essay accuses the Intelligent Design movement of being primarily an arm of "conservative Republicans" and the "religious right." (Mar. 5, 2001)
Had Morse No Code? | Like much popular art, the finale of Inspector Morse functions like a dream of the collective unconscious. (Feb. 26, 2001)