I’m at the point in my life when I ask myself what I would change if I could relive my years of pastoral ministry. Mind you, they were 38 wonderful years, and I cherish the memory of the four appointments in which I served. And I’m smart enough to know that hind sight is not really twenty-twenty, because hind sight is never accurate in recalling the circumstances in which the decisions of past days were made.
Nevertheless, there are so many areas where I could have done better; things that had nothing to do with character, ability, or the nature of the church. That is, things that were really pretty much in my control, and not lost in generalities such as wishing I had made better use of my time (which is a generality made up of specifics).
This is a specific one, and nothing kept me from it except perhaps my ignorance. I wish I had celebrated Ascension Sunday more often, both in my preaching and in the order of worship.
I know why I was slow to learn. I grew up in a long-ago world of Midwestern Methodism when the church calendar had three days, Christmas, Easter, and Mother’s Day. And sometimes Good Friday We learned much later about Advent, Lent, Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and All Saints Day (rather than Memorial Day).
Ascension Day is actually a Thursday, of course, and the more liturgical bodies celebrate it then. But I would celebrate it on the assigned Sunday, knowing that I would reach far more people than on a Thursday.
And of course I would have a hymn from Charles Wesley: “Hail the Day That Sees Him Rise.” Wesley wrote it in 1739, when Methodism was still in its first bloom. Its Anglican roots were evident in its sense of tradition, including the church calendar, but the tradition was now aflame with the warmed heart.
The opening line of “Hail the Day” sounds as if it were another Easter hymn — “Hail the day that sees him rise” — but the next line tells us that we have passed beyond Easter; to what does Christ rise? For a few days or years on earth, then to die like Jairus’s daughter or the widow of Nain’s son? If so there is no compelling reason to celebrate Easter. Easter, with such a conclusion, would be the memory of a miracle but not the end to the power of death. Christ has risen so that he may go “to his throne above the skies.”
Our Lord’s ascension is, as I like to phrase it, “Easter’s exclamation point.” It tells us that the resurrection of our Lord is not simply a miracle, something to astonish us as with thousands of other miracles; it is a re-shaping of the order of the universe; it is the death of death. It is not simply a lengthening of life; it is a re-definition of life.
And see what our Lord’s ascension means to us, the church today:
See! The heaven its Lord receives,
Yet he loves the earth he leaves,
Though returning to his throne,
Still he calls the world his own.
I wish I had preached this more often! I wish I had reminded my people that our Lord is still active on our world’s behalf, as our Intercessor. I wish I had told them often enough that both they and I would have got the reality of it.