A large, framed picture of this stained glass window hangs in my study at church. The window is located in the balcony of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Wauwatosa WI, where I spent my vicar year. I received the print as a seminary graduation gift. While I was in California, the picture hung in my office, in just the right position so that I could see it from the front of church. Every time I raised my hands in blessing at the end of the service, I could see Jesus’ outstretched arms. Indeed, the benediction is his blessing. Today, I can’t see the picture from our chancel, but it still often reminds me of Jesus’ ascension. I have found that Jesus’ ascension has provided me with tremendous comfort for my life and ministry as long as I have been in it.
For the past seven years, I have been privileged to participate in worship services on Ascension Day, 40 days after Easter. I know that many churches no longer observe Ascension on this day (many transfer it to the Sunday after), but at this point, I just couldn’t imagine not marking this day. In fact, I have been told that my current congregation had never had an Ascension service before last year. But I have said that since I would be observing it anyway (on my own or with my family), I might as well invite others to join me.
I understand that Jesus’ ascension doesn’t rank up there with Christmas and Easter (in the minds of most people). I understand that Thursday nights in May are often busy with all kinds of activities. I understand that Hallmark and Walmart don’t have Ascension aisles—no one makes any money by getting you to celebrate Ascension. I get that. But none of that takes away from the mighty significance of Jesus’ Ascension, and the importance of ordering our lives around these monumental events in the life of Christ. The fact that people don’t celebrate it and don’t think much of it does not take away from the fact that 40 days after he rose, Jesus ascended and now sits at the right hand of God as our exalted brother who rules all things for the good of his church. His Church would no longer exist if he didn’t do that. I wouldn’t be a part of it if he hadn’t ascended.
Since it is such a high festival in the church year, a neighboring pastor and I decided that we would work together to plan a service that could rightly be called a festival. We used a special setting of the liturgy (Missa Pacem). A choir made up of members of two congregations led the way through the service. The service was accompanied by organ, piano, trumpet, handbells, and violin. And to top it all off, we knelt side by side and received the body and blood of our ascended Lord, in an uncommon opportunity to enjoy the communion fellowship we share with our sister congregations.
Our hope is that if we treat it like a festival, perhaps other people will, too. Perhaps if we preach it for what it really is, some might also come to appreciate its importance in the life of the Church, and in the life of every Christian. Unfortunately, we still had only 69 people in attendance. About 30 were in the choir loft. Last year we had 47 here, but that was just members of our congregation, and just shy of half our normal Sunday attendance.
But I have no regrets about doing the service, or how we did it. I don’t think that it was at all a waste of effort or time. We pulled out all the stops. We made use of the best of our resources. We celebrated. We feasted. Perhaps with time it will be different. Perhaps more will come next year.
But if we have to wait until Jesus returns in the same way his disciples saw him go into heaven before we see huge crowds, so be it. Until then, I won’t be surprised to find that the group who looks up into the clouds continues to be rather small.
But when Jesus comes, even if that falls on a Thursday in May, people will come to that. The trumpets will sound. Alleluias will be sung. Jesus will be there. And his people will come. From every nation, tribe, people and language…