In many of our churches, if not all, the attendance at the Ascension Day Service has become rather slim. It certainly is not what it should be. With the possible exception of Prayer Day, the Congregation is smaller on Ascension Day than on any of the times the Elders of the Church call the congregation to gather for worship. Other religious holidays on the church calendar from Christmas to Good Friday and Easter are better attended, as are a the gatherings that meet for the non-holy days of the year, such as New Year’s Day and Thanksgiving.
What is the explanation for this? The reason certainly can not be that the ascension of our Lord was an event of minor importance when compared to His birth, death, and resurrection. Two of the reasons given as to why people fail to worship on Ascension Day are insignificant, to say the least.
The first excuse given is that the Ascension Day Service happens to fall on a weeknight, in the spring of the year. The lure of nature with its field work, gardens, and the like, beckon us to be outdoors rather than in church. The second excuse is that there seems to be a total lack of interest in the ascension of Christ on the part of the general public. Unlike Christmas, Thanksgiving, and other holidays, Ascension Day is scarcely mentioned in the newspapers. In fact, few calendars even list Ascension Day anymore. Those who have to plan services for this day are found counting the forty days following Easter to make certain that the worship service is on the right day. I recall several years ago an elder bemoaning the fact that his church was the only one that had advertised an Ascension Day Service in the newspaper. He regretted that other churches were not honoring the day as they should. I hesitated to point out that the day his church had planned for the worship service was a week early. His immediate reply was, “I suppose then we got Pentecost wrong, too.”
If the balmy breezes of Spring and the indifferent attitude of an unbelieving world toward the ascension of Jesus account for our indifference to this important event, then our spiritual life must be at a very low point. How thoughtless we have become toward this holy day! If our estimation of the significance of this day depends upon whether or not Hallmark has latched onto it, we, indeed, are to be pitied! Rather let us return to the real importance of this day and its intrinsic value in light of the Word of God. From a Scriptural point of view Ascension Day is no less important than Christmas Day. Why should the return of Christ into glory be of less interest to us than His coming to us from glory?
The return of Christ into heaven was not a sad event. In Luke 24, when Jesus departed from His disciples and was carried into heaven, they returned to Jerusalem with great joy. The farewell discourses of their Lord on the night of His betrayal had not been spoken in vain. They understood now what He meant when He had told them: “Let not your heart be troubled,” “in My Father’s house are many rooms,” “I go to prepare a place for you.” How emphatically and lovingly Christ had reassured them that His departure would be a blessing instead of a calamity. It would be gain, not loss, for then the Comforter could come who would teach them all things.
The benefits of the ascension of Christ are among the most precious gifts of the Savior to His Church. The first of these is His high priestly intercession for His saints. The perfect merits of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross must be presented to the Father. In doing this, Christ prepares a place for us. That ceaseless intercession remains necessary for as long as we commit sin. We, who are declared righteous before God, can only be declared righteous through Christ. Since the merits of Christ cannot be detached from His Person, and since He is our merit before God, God can bear with us only through the constant presence of Him who is our righteousness before Him. Without the ascension of Christ there would be no intercession made on our behalf, and therefore, no salvation.
The second benefit of our Lord’s ascension is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The acceptance by the Father of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross resulted in sending forth the Holy Spirit to abide with His church forever. The regeneration of dead souls, the application to our hearts of all the blessings of salvation, the endowment of the Church with all the rich gifts and blessings of the Holy Spirit all hinged upon the ascension of our Lord and Savior. Since, through the Holy Spirit, Christ is spiritually present with all His followers at all times, we may say that Jesus left His Church in order to remain with it and to fulfill His promise: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Our Lord’s ascension, in the third place, is also a mighty incentive to heavenly mindedness. In one of its most touching answers, the Heidelberg Catechism explains the advantages of Christ’s ascension into heaven and points to the fact that, “He sends us His Spirit as an earnest, by whose power we seek the things which are above, where Christ is seated on the right hand of God, and not things on earth.” Christ, our Head, is not on earth, but in heaven. We, His members, should not set our hearts on earthly things but on heavenly things and begin to live the heavenly life while we are still on the earth.
Could it be that the prevailing earthly mindedness in the Church explains to a great extent the lack of interest in the ascension of Christ? There can hardly be a doubt that a lack of spirituality would lessen a person’s interest in this day. Likewise there can be no doubt that an increase in spirituality among those who profess the Lord would heighten their interest in this great event in the life of their Savior.
The ascension of Christ is too vital a subject to be proclaimed from our pulpits before a small audience. Please give careful thought to this subject and make it a point to be in God’s house to celebrate the ascension of our Lord this month.
Rev. Wybren Oord is the pastor of the Covenant is the pastor of the United Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He is also the editor of The Outlook.