“Almighty God, as Your only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, ascended into the heavens, so may we also ascend in heart and mind and continually dwell there with Him, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.”
[Collect for Ascension Day]
With the late date of Easter, the calendar sees the rare occurrence of the Festival of the Ascension being held in June. This year, this important date in the Church Year falls on June 2. The Church celebrates the day when her Lord bodily entered heaven, forty days after He bodily rose from the tomb. The festive nature of this day is seen in the opening verse of the appointed Psalm that the Church prays: “Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!”(Ps 47:1) As one expects at a celebration, people are invited to sing songs of joy. The reason for the joy is found in the meaning of this festival day.
Why does the Church rejoice at Ascension Day? One reason is that the entrance of the God-Man Jesus Christ into Paradise shows that mankind can again dwell in the unveiled presence of the perfect Deity. Mankind is no longer doomed to separation from the Lord. Jesus ascends to the right hand of the Father. But from His mouth come no statements of unworthiness or dread. Jesus does not have the problem that plagued Isaiah when he beheld the Lord’s glory.(Is 6:1-8) Instead, He stands in His own perfection and is exalted to the right hand of the Father. The psalmist rightly describes what is happening at Jesus’ ascension: “God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.”(Ps 47:5) It is a truth that is only possible because of the incarnation: God assumed to Himself a human nature; Jesus is truly God and truly man.
A second reason for the Church’s joy at Ascension Day is found in what this event confirms about Jesus. His ascension displays the results of His work. Jesus has triumphed over sin, death, and Satan. Jesus’ ascension shows His dominion over all things. Speaking of God, the psalmist describes Jesus’ dominion: “Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises! For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm! God reigns over the nations; God sits on His holy throne. The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham. For the shields of the earth belong to God; He is highly exalted!”(Ps 47:6-9) Jesus sits on His throne. He reigns over all nations. He is highly exalted. Nothing is outside of His rule. This Jesus is the Church’s Lord.
At His ascension, Jesus is exalted by God the Father. This exaltation comes only after He was first humiliated in crucifixion. When Jesus had completed His work of accomplishing salvation for sinful humanity, He was put in authority over all things. In this way, a man once again stands as the pinnacle of creation. It is a greater return to the position that man had at the beginning. At Creation, Adam was put in dominion over the flora and fauna, but he forsook that with his sin of rebellion. Now, after Jesus perfectly obeyed the Father’s will, lived sinlessly, gave Himself sacrificially, and was raised to life gloriously, He has governance over the entire cosmos. Man is restored. He stands in the Lord’s perfection without fear.
Jesus’ ascension into Paradise is the truly Triumphal Entrance for Jesus. He receives more than the praise of crowds waving palms. He rides no lowly beast of burden. Instead, “He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight.”(Ac 1:9b) And yet, this exalting is the result of what Jesus did during that week in Jerusalem when He entered the city to shouts of “Hosanna!” This is what the Apostle Paul outlines in the Epistle Reading for Ascension Day. Speaking of God the Father, Paul tells of what He was doing at Jesus’ ascension: “the working of His great might that He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things under His feet and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.”(Ep 1:19b-23)
So the Church obeys the psalmist’s command: “Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!”(Ps 47:1) The songs of joy include lyrics that reflect the two reasons for rejoicing: mankind once again standing in the Lord’s perfect presence and the exaltation that confirms Jesus’ work. Confessing the restoration of mankind to perfection, the Church sings:
“He has raised our human nature
On the clouds to God’s right hand;
There we sit in heavn’ly places,
There with Him in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels;
Man with God is on the throne.
By our mighty Lord’s ascension
We by faith behold our own.”
[Lutheran Service Book 494:5]
Speaking of her humiliated, but now exalted Lord, the Church sings:
“The Head that once was crowned with thorns
Is crowned in glory now;
A royal diadem adorns
The mighty Victor’s brow.”
[Lutheran Service Book 532:1]
There is one more reason for joyful singing on Ascension Day: the promise that the two angels made at Jesus’ ascension. As part of the First Reading for the day, the Church hears the angels’ statement: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.”(Ac 1:10-11) This return will mean that not only one Man will stand in the Lord’s perfect presence. This return will mean that Jesus’ dominion is more than just an arm’s-length divine rule over creation. Jesus’ return is the fulfillment of His salvific work: redeemed sinners will be resurrected and live eternally in a new heaven and new earth with the Lord.
So the Church sings with joy about what happened at Jesus’ ascension. But she also sings about what she awaits from her Ascended Lord:
“Be now our joy on earth, O Lord,
And be our future great reward.
Then, throned with You forever, we
Shall praise Your name eternally.”
[Lutheran Service Book 493:5]
This you sing because you believe what Jesus has done for you by His death, resurrection, and ascension. So you rightly pray in faith to receive what God the Father will give: “Almighty God, as Your only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, ascended into the heavens, so may we also ascend in heart and mind and continually dwell there with Him.” That is your promised inheritance. As the Church repeats her celebration of Ascension Day this year on June 2, this promised result is again made known to you. It truly is a reason for you to sing with joy!