A HYMN OF GLORY LET US SING
(Fifth in a Series on The Lutheran Hymnal)
Why do we celebrate Ascension Day?
Although most Reformed churches today largely ignore the event as a calendar item, we Lutherans do not. Theologians actually have much to say about the doctrine of Christ’s bodily ascension. They use fancy Latin terms like terminus ad quem (“the end to which”), coelum beatorum (“the paradise of the redeemed”) and coelum Dei maiestaticum (“the majestic heaven of God”). The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord addresses Christ’s ascension at length in Sections VII and VIII.
But I’m not a theologian; I’m just an ordinary, every-day Christian layman trying to make my way through this sin-spoiled world. I know from my religious instruction that forty days after Easter, Jesus ascended into heaven; but what is that to me? What I want to know is, “What does the ascension of Christ mean to me in my daily life?”
Hymn 216 in The Lutheran Hymnal answers (at least in part) that question. Based on John 14:3 (“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also”), it doesn’t talk about esoteric points of theology—important though those points are to the faithful teaching of the whole counsel of God. Rather, this hymn reminds Christians that our Lord’s ascension is a guarantee that we, too, shall ascend to be with Him in the “heavenly mansions” (John 14:2) which He has prepared for us. Insofar as this hymn emphasizes that assurance, it is similar to Hymn 206, which we considered in the Easter edition of the Lutheran Spokesman.
However, there is an important point of difference between the resurrection of Christ and His ascension. The resurrection had no eyewitnesses. It didn’t need any, because Jesus “showed Himself alive after His Passion by many infallible proofs” (Acts 1:3). But have you ever wondered, “What if there had been no witnesses to the ascension?” Would we not then be asking, “What has happened to Christ? Why is He not still with us today in the same manner that He was with His disciples after the resurrection? Where did He go?” Certainly, Jesus did foretell His ascension (John 14:1-4), but unlike the resurrection, Jesus also provided for eyewitnesses who give us first-hand testimony to the historical reality of that event. The eleven remaining apostles and other disciples (Luke 24:33 & 50-51) all saw Jesus visibly ascend. We know where He went, and we know why.
Based on His ascension, we can have complete confidence that we also shall have everlasting life in heaven with our Lord: “On Christ’s ascension I now build/ The hope of mine ascension;/ This hope alone has ever stilled/ All doubt and apprehension” (v. 1). Christ returned to heaven, He is now ruling over all things; and knowing that, we can have rest for our hearts even in this troubled world: “Since He returned to claim His throne/ Great gifts for men obtaining,/ My heart shall rest in Him alone,/ No other rest remaining” (v. 2).
Verse three of Hymn 216 contains a phrase that is striking in its picturesque and simple statement of an important biblical doctrine. That phrase is “Adorning Thy redemption.” What jewel is it that adorns Christ’s redemption? It is our life of sanctification. Note well, there is no confusion here of justification with sanctification; there is no tinge of works-righteousness. Consider the phrase in its context: “Oh, grant, dear Lord, this grace to me,/ Recalling Thine ascension,/ That I may ever walk with Thee,/ Adorning Thy redemption” (v. 3). It reinforces the truth that our walk with Christ, as His adornment, is a response to what He has done for us. As we recall His ascension, to prepare a place in heaven for us, that reminder of our free justification by grace is the Gospel motivation for our seeking to live a God-pleasing life.
May the assurance of Christ’s ascension lead us to “adorn His redemption” in our daily walk.
Craig Owings is a retired teacher and serves as assistant editor of the Lutheran Spokesman. He lives in Cape Coral, Florida.