Today is Ascension Day, the day we remember Jesus’ ascension into heaven. I’ve heard that in 19th century Germany, Ascension Day was a big holiday, with candles and boats and feasting and song. You can still see vestiges of that heritage in the Lutheran Church around New York. There are a few congregations named after the Ascension, and by my very unscientific reckoning, most of them seem to have been funded by German immigrants.
Now the waves of European immigrants have receded, and in their withdrawal, they have left churches empty. Like most Christian churches, our own denomination faces the sadness of empty pews and aging congregations. I often wonder at the disciples, who watch their Lord withdraw from them to ascend into heaven. They do not weep but rejoice. Why is this? Anyone looking at statistics and trends of church life is in for a lot of hand-wringing. Can we also rejoice at the receding of Christ’s body?
The disciples rejoiced at Christ’s ascension because they knew that by ascending, Christ was coming closer to them.
It is wrong to think in only one direction when it comes to God. Martin Luther asked once, when we say that Christ ascended to the Father’s right hand, where is that right hand? The only answer is everywhere – not just up, but down, side to side, before and behind, within and without. As the Psalmist says, “Where can I go to flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.”
Paul also writes that God is strongest in human weakness. So the Ascension can mean for us that when our power recedes, our strength disappears, our faith founders, the power of the Risen Christ fills our emptiness, just as His presence fills and overfills all of creation.
Happy Ascension Day!