Something ought to be said concerning the Ascension of our Lord on this fortieth day of Easter. I would like to think that every Christian congregation around the world were going to be assembled in joyous celebration of this great Feast, but I do know better than that. I honestly don't remember whether it was much observed in the course of my growing up years, but I have been told that the Ascension was celebrated with gusto and exuberance by Lutherans in the not-so-distant past. Nowadays, it is tough to gather much of a crowd for the occasion. Turns out that the fortieth day of Easter is always a Thursday, and most folks don't think of going to church in the middle of the week.
There are five great high Feasts of the Church Year, and the Ascension of Our Lord is one of them. The other four are Christmas and Epiphany, Easter and Pentecost. Everyone knows about Christmas, and most churches are gathered for services of one sort or another on that occasion (if not on Christmas Day, then Christmas Eve). Easter Day and Pentecost Day are always Sundays, and at least the Feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord is given as much attention as anything is in the life of the Christian Church. The Epiphany and the Ascension of Our Lord don't fare so well.
I've already mentioned that I can't remember celebrating the Ascension in my childhood. Certainly I was aware that Jesus ascended into heaven, and I probably could have answered that it happened on the fortieth day following His Resurrection. I don't think I understood what any of this meant, however, until I became a pastor and became responsible for preaching this particular Gospel story. It needs to be preached and celebrated in order to be comprehended.
The Epiphany and the Ascension, though largely neglected and forgotten in practice, are like a pair of bookends to the great Salvation accomplished for us by Christ Jesus. The early church fathers understood from the Holy Scriptures, and they confessed, that God became man, so that man might become divine (that is, by grace through faith in Christ). Such a provocative saying can surely be misunderstood, but it can also be a powerful corrective to a host of alternative misunderstandings that run rampant among Christians. It says that the nature and content of our salvation is not simply a gift from God, but the gift of God Himself, who reveals and shares Himself with us in Christ, the incarnate Son, and makes us partakers of His divine nature. The life everlasting is life with God in Christ (and life with Christ in God). Heaven itself would be void and bare, if not for the fact that Jesus is there, in whom the very heart of the Father is opened to us, and in whom we are brought into the eternal Life and Love of the Holy Trinity.
Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of God in the flesh and blood of Christ Jesus. He became in every way like us, only without any sin of His own. He took His stand among us sinners, and He so identified Himself with us and our predicament that He actually became sin and a curse and suffered our death and damnation upon the Cross. Sin and death He dealt with in mortal flesh like unto our own. But our humanity, which is now also His humanity, He did not leave behind; that would have defeated the whole purpose. We are not saved from our human nature, nor rescued from our bodies of flesh and blood. We are redeemed from sin, death and hell, in order to be reconciled to God the Father, in both body and soul, and bodily raised from death and the grave to the life everlasting (with Christ) in the paradise of the new creation.
The Ascension of Our Lord is our ascension, no less than His Resurrection from the dead is our resurrection. In and with our flesh and blood, sharing our human nature, in His risen and glorified body (the same body conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and crucified for us men and our salvation under Pontius Pilate), our Savior enters into the courts of heaven to live before God the Father in righteousness, innocence and blessedness forever. In His Person, God and man have been perfectly and permanently united; and we are His own members, His Body and His Bride. Where He is, there are we also. Not only in our hearts and our heads, but in our bodies. Though we presently suffer the curse of sin and death, these have already been defeated once and for all in the flesh and blood of Christ. The One who died in our place, has risen in our place. So, too, in His Ascension to the right hand of the Father, His place becomes our place. By our Baptism into Him, we are all sons of God in Christ Jesus.
The Gospel is the narrative of a great journey that the Son of God has undertaken for our salvation. He came down from heaven, became flesh, and descended all the way down into the depths of our sin, even unto death and into the grave. Victorious in His Passion, vindicated in His Resurrection, He has returned to the Father in His Ascension. And He has taken us with Him. He has united us with Himself, in His Cross and Resurrection, in His crucified and risen Body, and He has brought us into the Holy of Holies made without hands, eternal in the heavens.
The Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord ought to be celebrated with fullest fanfare. It is not a day of sad goodbyes, but of a joyful homecoming. For in Christ Jesus we have come home, at last, to our true Father in heaven.