09 May 2024

Ascension: When Jesus took his throne.

This happened on Thursday, 15 May 33—if we figure Luke’s count of 40 days Ac 1.3 wasn’t an estimate, but a literal 40 days.

Acts 1.6-9 NRSVue
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

I usually translate ἐπήρθη/epírthi (KJV “he was taken up,” NRSV “he was lifted up”) as “he was raptured.” ’Cause that’s what happened. Jesus got raptured into heaven.

From there Jesus ascended (from the Latin ascendere, “to climb”) to the Father’s throne—to sit at his right hand, Ac 2.33, 7.55-56 both in service and in judgment. We figure Jesus’s ascension took place the very same day he was raptured, so that’s when Christians have historically celebrated it: 40 days after Easter, and 10 days before Pentecost Sunday.

Some of us only focus on Jesus’s rapture—“Yay, he’s in heaven now!” And yeah, there’s that. But the way more important thing is Jesus taking his throne. When we say our Lord reigns, you realize his reign began at some point. Wasn’t when he died, and defeated sin and death; wasn’t when he rose from the dead, and proved he defeated sin and death. It’s when he took his throne. It’s his ascension day. Which we observe today.

He’s coming back, y’know.

Sometimes nitpickers like to point out the word “rapture” isn’t in the bible—and depending on your translation, they’re entirely right. It’s not in the KJV, fr’instance. But whether you wanna use the term “rapture” or not for Jesus going up to heaven, that is what happened.

And just as Jesus was being raptured, just as Jesus’s followers were watching it happen, two guys had this to say about it:

Acts 1.10-11 NRSVue
10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Luke, the author of Acts, calls these guys “two men,” and historically Christians have taught these are angels. Doesn’t matter their species. The Holy Spirit had informed them, so they informed Jesus’s students, our Lord is returning. That’s the message the apostles passed along to the first Christians, and the first Christians to us.

There are tose who say there’s no second coming, or who claim it’s not a literal second coming—Jesus is only gonna reign in our hearts, from heaven, but he’s never gonna return to the earth to take it over. These men said otherwise. He’ll come back “in the same way you saw him go into heaven.“ Ac 1.11

But, y’know, grander. Consistent with how Daniel of Babylon described his vision of the Son of Man coming with the heavenly clouds. Da 7.13 Sounds like he’ll visibly appear in the sky… so that’s the idea many Pharisees of Jesus’s day had about how Messiah’d show up to seize power: Not showing up in a caravan from the Galilee, but bursting from the heavenly plane to the earthly plane, ripping a hole in the heavens large enough to see God through.

In any event we Christians teach much the same thing: The sky will go black, Messiah will appear in it, and everybody will see it.

Since Christians (heck, humans) tend to be a bit literal-minded, tradition has it when Jesus returns, he’ll land on the very same mountain he ascended from. That’d be Mt. Olivet, Ac 1.12 also called the Mount of Olives. The Jews also have a tradition that Messiah comes to that mountain, which is why they’ve put a massive cemetery there: If Messiah’s gonna raise the dead, may as well put your family members in a convenient spot so he can raise them!

At the same time, we who are Jesus’s followers will likewise get raptured to join him:

1 Thessalonians 4.16-18 NRSVue
16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

From there, Jesus and his new entourage of several billion Christians and angels will march to Jerusalem, and claim his city. And his world.

Observing the day.

So yeah, Christians still observe Ascension on the 40th day after Easter, which’ll always fall on a Thursday. Sometimes we’ll call it the Feast of the Ascension, Ascension Thursday, Holy Thursday, or Ascension Day.

The Sunday after—the last Sunday of Easter, and the Sunday before Pentecost—becomes Ascension Sunday. Since many churches don’t have a Thursday service, they hold off their Ascension stuff till then. Since Orthodox churches will sometimes hold Easter later, it means their Ascension and Pentecost come later too.

Feasting or fasting vary from church to church. After all, we’re sad Jesus had to leave, but sitting at the Father’s right hand is a very big deal. So there’s a little rejoicing, a little lamenting; it’s bittersweet.

And of course lots of churches observe it with, “It’s what day?… Oh, that’s a Catholic thing.” Although you realize if they invented the holiday, they’d definitely treat it like the big deal it is.