Today is Ascension, and we will celebrate Jesus' ascension into heaven this Sunday, May 28. The church has celebrated the ascension since the early centuries, and we see the importance given to the ascension in the early creeds of the church. The Apostles' Creed says:
I believe in Jesus Christ...
was crucified, died and was buried;
he descended into hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty...
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, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
Mark, the earliest Gospel, ends his book with the story of the ascension. Luke ends his Gospel with the ascension, and then begins his second volume of Acts with another telling of it.
Sometimes we forget that the ascension is the completion and fulfillment of God's promises in Christ in several fundamental ways. In the Old Testament, the priests would offer sacrifices of burned animals as an offering (the word in Hebrew for offering is olah which means "that which ascends") and the smoke would fill the Holy of Holies, symbolizing communion with God, even though only the priests could physically enter the Holy of Holies. All of the Old Testament sacrificial system points to Christ, our Great High Priest, our sacrificial Lamb. When Christ, our risen Lord, ascends to heaven, he is entering the Holy of Holies for us once for all. In this act of ascension, we are brought into the Holy of Holies, brought into communion with God, communion that we will have for eternity!
In the ascension, Christ is bringing a body like ours into heaven. It is both the promise and fulfillment that our physical bodies will be raised and that in them we will see God. We are not only spirits, but God has promised to redeem these bodies he created, and in the ascension we know that our bodies and our physical reality are of supreme importance. With our ascended Lord, we also have one in heaven who has suffered and been tempted like we are, and is even now interceding at the throne of grace for us.
It is also through Christ's ascension that the Holy Spirit is sent to us to live in our hearts and give us encouragement, great hope, and the ability to be Christ's hands and feet on the earth. And it is the Spirit who unites us to Christ, who enables us to have communion with him in heaven. In John 16:7, Jesus says to his disciples, "Very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you."
Christ's ascension also shows his kingship; he is seated on the throne at the right hand of the Father. "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever." (Rev 11:15) We should be reminded that it is a king we worship, and as our great high priest, Christ serves as the leader of our worship through the power of the Spirit, uniting heaven and earth in our worship as the body of Christ. In our liturgy we say, "Lift up your hearts" to heaven, and then we join with the song of the angels around the throne, saying, "Holy, holy, holy!"