Last Thursday, May 5, was Ascension Day. The Feast of the Ascension, Saint Augustine wrote, "is that festival which confirms the grace of all the festivals together, without which the profitableness of every festival would have perished." And yet in many Protestant churches, this week will pass without even a mention of the Ascension.
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 churchand 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), 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.
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Books & Culture Corner and Books & Culture's Book of the Week, from Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture: A Christian Review (want a free trial issue?), appears regularly on Tuesdays at Christianity Today. Earlier editions include:
Making Believe | Bedtime stories for grown-ups. (May 03, 2005)
Looking for God on the Holy Mountain | A journey to Mount Athos. (Apr. 25, 2005)
The Words of the Word | Two sharply contrasting perspectives on Bible translation. (April 19, 2005)
Divine Comedies | A report on Baylor's Art & Soul conference, version 2005. (April 12, 2005)
Unbelievable | Religion is really, really bad for you. (April 05, 2005)
This Land Is Whose Land? | An impassioned plea on behalf of the "caribou people" in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the land they have inhabited for nearly 20,000 years. (March 22, 2005)
All in Her Head | How a chronic pain sufferer found a little bit of strength in a lot of weakness. (March 15, 2005)
My Likeness, My Brother | A powerful autobiographical work from a prizewinning creator of comics in France. (March 08, 2005)
Looking for Yogi | The 2005 Spring Training preview. (March 01, 2005)
Gut Check | Blink makes the case for intuitive judgment. (Feb. 22, 2005)
Wayfaring Strangers | Set in Mexico, Anita Desai's latest novel is a compact but multilayered tale of pilgrimage. (Feb. 01, 2005)
What Do You Mean, 'Moral' Fiction? | John Gardner, Martin Amis, and the ethics of the novel. (Jan. 25, 2005)