Ascension: The Promise
Jesus says goodbye to his friends (also called disciples). His work on earth is finished and it is time for him to go back to God. Jesus then offers a hopeful and somewhat confusing promise - I will go away but will not leave you. What can this mean? What happens at Ascension and why is it so important for Christians? For Christians it is a time to reflect on the moment that Jesus returned to heaven.
Recap of events
Jesus and his friends have been through a lot together. For a long time they traveled together in Israel. They have seen Jesus preach, perform miracles and heal the sick. His friends were present when Jesus was received like a king in Jerusalem, on Palm Sunday. They saw how he stirred things up in the temple. They listened to him speak fervently about justice and forgiveness. On Holy Thursday, they ate the Last Supper together. Horrified, they watched as Jesus was rounded up, tortured, and innocently condemned. They witnessed Jesus' gruesome death on the cross on Good Friday and got the surprise of their lives when they found out he had risen from the dead three days later on Easter. It is now 40 days later and Jesus and his friends are walking on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
Jesus has spoken frequently to his friends in recent weeks about the Kingdom of God. While they do not completely comprehend everything he has said; they think and perhaps hope that Jesus will free them from Roman oppression. During their last walk together, they ask Jesus again: will you now see to it that Israel becomes a free country again? Jesus answers that they do not need to know this because it is in God's hands. The Kingdom of God goes far beyond the land of Israel and the Jews.
He heartens and encourages them to tell the world what they have seen and heard from Jesus. Jesus makes them a special promise: he will go away, but will not leave them. He promises that soon the Holy Spirit will come. This sounds very spooky, but really just means that God himself wants to be in people's hearts. This spirit stirs us from within to live, to love and to give his kingdom hands and feet in this world. His friends still have 10 days to wait for Pentecost.
Meaning of Ascension
You may be wondering: 'So why is this day so important to Christians?'. For this you need to look at the meaning of Ascension. The fact that Jesus went back to heaven means very simply that he is no longer human. As a human being, he was bound to a particular place and time. Now that Jesus is in heaven, he can be there for everyone: wherever, whenever, forever. The Ascension is also the moment when Jesus' life in this world comes full circle. From heaven he was sent to earth and now he returns. Heaven is the place where Jesus is supposed to be.
Some Christians also see Ascension as the biggest celebration for Jesus himself. After an eventful life on earth, Jesus finally comes home. The Bible describes how Jesus sits down at the right hand of God - a place of honor. Father and son are reunited. This must have been a special moment for Jesus himself.
Did the story of Ascension really happen?
Let's face it. Ascension is a pretty wild story after all: Jesus disappearing into the clouds, returning to heaven. Therefore, there is no historical evidence that this story really happened. Even among Christians there are different opinions about Ascension. Was it really a physical event or more of a metaphorical one?
The fact is that all friends hold to the story that Jesus went back to heaven. But his return to heaven is not as a departed soul, but as a living being. Their message was and still is: Jesus is alive! All of them firmly believed this and have maintained it, even though it meant a horrible death for many.
Furthermore, Jesus' body was never found and the writer Luke was not corrected in his reporting by the then living eyewitnesses. Do you have doubts about whether Jesus existed at all? There's actually no need to. Read how (non-Christian) historians confirm the existence of Jesus here.
When is Ascension?
Ascension is celebrated on a Thursday each year, exactly 40 days after Easter and 10 days before Pentecost. In the coming years, Ascension will be celebrated on May 26, 2022, and May 18, 2023.
The Sunday after Ascension is also called "Orphans Sunday", because Jesus' friends were left behind as "orphans". Their great leader was gone - now what? This Sunday is all about patience and trust. Jesus had promised not to leave them alone, but his friends did feel alone and abandoned. They had to wait 10 days. At Pentecost, the pieces of the puzzle fall together, but they just didn't know it at the time.
In life, sometimes we are left waiting for answers or a breakthrough. Recognizable? This Sunday shows us that we can always trust God - even when we don't understand why things are or aren’t happening.
How can I celebrate Ascension?
You can often attend a church service on Ascension. However, some churches do not celebrate Ascension on Thursday, but wait until the next Sunday. Ascension doesn’t really have any specific traditions. If you want to dwell on this Christian holiday, you can also...:
Ascension is a day of wonder and anticipation; both a farewell and a new beginning. It is a wondrous event, but also a day of questioning. What now? Just as the friends of Jesus had to wait, perhaps you feel as though you have had to wait, or have had to say goodbye to something or someone and had no idea what to do next? With Jesus it is never the end of the story. Not even when he says goodbye. His story continues at Pentecost.