Today is what more “liturgically”-oriented Christians in the Western tradition call “The Ascension of our Lord.” Why do we give a special day to that event that seems nothing more than Jesus’ travel plans between earth and heaven. Earth is important. Heaven is important. But the flight in between?
Christians give heavy emphasis (rightfully so) on the cross. A lot of spotlight is placed on the resurrection of Christ, as well. Many other events vie for third place–Pentecost, the Last Supper, etc.–but Christ’s ascension is probably not in the running for most Christians. And yet, the ascension is given equal airtime to the cross and resurrection in some of the most important faith-statements of the Church. The Apostles’ Creed says:
I believe in Jesus Christ…
…was crucified, dead, and buried.
He descended into hell.
On the third day He rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven…
The Nicene Creed says:
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ…
…He suffered and was buried;
and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures,
and ascended into heaven…
The earliest Gospel, Mark, punctuates the entire story of Jesus by ending the book with the account of the ascension. Luke closes volume one of his two-part series of Luke-Acts with it (Luke 24:50-53), and he repeats and fills out the ascension in the opening of volume two (Acts 1:9-12).
So, again, why the prominence? Many reasons could be listed, but I find one quite compelling and logical, and to understand it, we need to step back into the Old Testament sacrificial system and temple/tabernacle worship. The book of Hebrews makes clear that Christ was what the whole system was pointing to: Jesus was the once-for-all sacrifice; Jesus was the great high priest; Jesus was the Greater Moses, the greater lawgiver.
When we think about the rituals associated with atonement and reconciliation between humanity and God, we see this (summarized) pattern:
- Sacrifice outside the Holy of Holies
- Entry into the Holy of Holies
- Fellowship with God in the Holy of Holies
The cross is obviously the sacrifice. The resurrection enables the sacrifice’s perpetual, living intercession. But without the ascension, there is no approach to God. There is no entry. The sacrifice (and we along with it) remain outside the Holy of Holies, outside rich, deep union and communion with God.
Put simply, then, ascension-less Christianity is like the priest never walking into the Holy of Holies. There’s no journey into intimate fellowship with God. It would be as if the whole sacrificial progression were at a stand-still, because, though the sacrifice were made, no further movement of intercession and mediation were made. The blood of the sacrifice stays outside, and it doesn’t sprinkle the altar.
In other words, the ascension (and session [Christ’s seating at the right hand of the Father]) helps seal for us what the crucifixion and the resurrection did. Christ is interceding, pleading His blood, and praying for us in the very presence of God the Father right now and ongoingly because the ascension happened (Heb 7:25). In the words of hymn-writer Joseph Hart (1759):
Lo! the incarnate God ascended
Pleads the merit of His blood;
Venture on Him, venture wholly;
Let no other trust intrude.