Sitting in West Des Moines on Thursday, a number of clergy from the diocese of Iowa were discussing Ascension Day. Part of the discussion had been provoked by the higher Anglo-Catholics in our midst. Scheduling a FreshStart class on Ascension Day made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for some churches in our diocese to celebrate the Ascension of our Lord. Those clergy who travelled more than a couple hours would simply run out of hours in the day. But then a few wondered whether churches would, in general, miss the celebration. Part of that discussion no doubt arose from Kent’s thoughtful sermon that he gave during the Eucharist that morning. What does Ascension Day mean? Why do we celebrate it? How important is it?
The Feast of the Ascension is, surprisingly to some, one of those very important feast days in the life of the church. In our Anglican tradition, the Feast of the Ascension marks one of six days that “good little Episcopalians/Anglicans are expected to go to church.” It ranks up there with Easter, Christmas, and Pentecost. And yet, my phone had not been ringing off the hook because we were not going to be holding a service on Thursday (there were a couple calls and few more face to face complaints). Why? Why do we seem to relegate Acension Day to second status?
It seems a bit strange that we do not get more worked up about it than we do. After all, every time we gather together to celebrate the Eucharist, we are reminded of its importance twice during the service. When we profess the Nicene Creed, we state that “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” And when we celebrate the Eucharist, we state that “we await His coming return (or He will come again). Every time we gather, we remember His death, His Resurrection, and His Ascension (which is tied intimately to His coming again). Why then do we not tell this part of His story more often?
Part of the reason, of course, is that it is a mystery. It is hard enough explaining that God became man, that He died for our sins, that He rose again from the dead, and that all things have been subjected to Him. Now you want me to explain that He rose to heaven to sit with the Father? -- you have got to be out of your mind. Yet, the good news of the story is so obvious and so simple, and it is so needed to be heard in this day and age. Christ, fully divine and fully human, ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God. His new, recreated body now sits eternally with the Father. And by walking the path set before Him in perfect obedience, He has made it possible that you, that I, and that everyone whom we meet might also be lifted to the presence of the Father. In a word, Jesus made the common holy!
And so you and I can be sent into the world looking for those holy things in the common life. It is part of the reason why a group of bicycle riders can do something weird, like ride a bike around Iowa or Missouri, and yet be used to bring clean water and the Living Water of Christ to places in Africa. It is why we can cook individual items for a group of homeless people in Davenport that, when gathered, reminds them of the "comfort foods" and "Thanksgiving Day" feasts of their youth. This “making the common holy” aspect of the Ascension is what makes it possible for churches to use social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook to either expand their community or deepen the relationship in an existent community. This “making the common holy” is why we can sometimes watch a movie such as Terminator: Salvation, Fight Club, Angels & Demons, Hancock, or some other title, and recognize the Gospel playing out before us. This “making the common holy” is what allows a church to look at a NY Times bestseller (The Shack) that is written for those who have lost their faith or never had it to begin with, with an eye towards telling His story better while deepening their relationship and love of one another as they share their own Great Sadness. This “making the common holy” is what allows missionaries to reach the people to whom they have been sent. It is what enables a pastor to come along and use mosquito nets, food, economic survival tips, gas cards, or whatever else we can think of, to remind people of the love of God and the promise of salvation that He offers us. It is what enables us to meet and share God’s love in imaginary places like World of Warcraft. Thought of in that term, that He makes the common holy, why do we not share more about the mystery and glory of His Ascension?