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Why We Celebrate Ascension

May 27, 2014

In recent years there has been a lot of talk about America as an impatient nation. We're in a hurry: we eat fast food, speed date, use self-checkout lines, access movies and TV shows via Netflix and Hulu, use abbreviations in text messages, and read more blogs and fewer books. We have gadgets and apps that immediately give us what we want—now! When it comes to waiting, as a viral video says, "Ain't nobody got time for that."

While a lot of people criticize our culture's impatience—indeed, there is much to lament about this cultural tendency—not everyone sees it as a disease that needs to be cured. In his 2010 NPR article "Impatient Nation: I Can't Wait for You to Read This," Linton Weeks classifies impatience as a virtue:

Impatience isn't always a bad thing. Sure, it can be the sign of a troubled mind. … But impatience can also be the sign of a healthy mind: Wired magazine lists impatience as a desirable characteristic in the "X-factor" that leads to success. Some of our most revered leaders are impatient people. Bill and Melinda Gates describe themselves as impatient optimists. … Impatience can be a virtue. [America's] Founding Fathers were an impatient lot. In an 1822 letter, John Adams described the writing of the Declaration of Independence: "We were all in haste," he said of the drafting committee, which included Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. "Congress was impatient."

In other words, impatience not only causes us to get things done; it is often coupled with the optimistic thought of what could be. Impatience drives us to turn possibilities into realities. It's not simply a feeling of irritation with something that causes delay. It's a restless desire for change.

Change—isn't that what the gospel is all about? The gospel tells us that many of our longings for change are satisfied now. We don't have to wait. Forgiveness of sin is a reality—now! New life in the Spirit is a reality—now! Reconciliation with others is a reality—now!

But as much as I'd like to agree with Weeks—that impatience is a virtue and that imprudence is the real problem—I think impatience is only a quasi virtue. Patience, we're taught in Scripture, is a fruit of the Spirit—a mark of God's very character. The gospel tells us that while some of our longings are certainly satisfied now, others will be satisfied later. We're told to be patient and to trust in God. Theologians call this tension the "now-and-not-yet" reality, one in which our thirst is satisfied, but not fully. We experience salvation and its many benefits now, but we await its full reality—the resurrection of our bodies and uninhibited communion with our Triune God. We can have some things now, but for other things we have to wait. And no Christian doctrine speaks to our immediate satisfaction and our anticipation quite like the doctrine of the Ascension.

Not an Appendix

The Ascension is often underrated and undervalued by evangelicals. We make a big deal of Christ's coming at Christmas, celebrating with gifts, baked goods, and carols. With solemn services we mourn his horrific death on Good Friday. And with exuberant celebration, we rejoice in his Resurrection on Easter Sunday, with glorious services, extravagant bouquets of flowers, Easter eggs, and big hunks of glazed ham. But to Christ's farewell we give very little attention—if any at all.

Perhaps this is because the Gospel writers say almost nothing of Christ's departure. Matthew includes no direct reference to the Ascension. Both Mark's and Luke's gospels condense this event into one measly verse (Mark 16:19; Luke 24:51). And John excludes the event from the ending of his gospel, though he does include several allusions—but the main focus of these texts is on the sending of the Holy Spirit, not Christ's ascension (see John 14:16–18; 16:4–15).

Perhaps they write so little about it because Christ's departure was a difficult topic of discussion. Anyone who has lost a loved one—for whatever reason—knows how tough it can be to talk about their loss. After all, they weren't just his students; they were his friends. 1 John 1:1 says, "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life." I can faintly imagine what it would have been like to live life with Christ while he was on Earth. He and his disciples traveled together, lodged together, prayed together, ate together, worked together, and ministered together. Then he was executed as a criminal. Their leader, their friend, was suddenly gone. They were trapped in fear and isolation. But then he came back to life, only to leave them again. What an emotional rollercoaster...click here to keep reading.

This article was originally published at Christianity Today. Read the rest of this article here.