Ascension over American Exceptionalism

Whether you go to church or not, everyone knows Christmas and Easter and its Christian roots: Christmas remembers Jesus’ birth and Resurrection is self-explanatory. You don’t have to believe the stories to be part of the festivity. Daniel Dennet, an atheist philosopher, has little tolerance for religion but sings “O Come All Ye Faithful” by heart in Latin on Christmas Eve. But there is another important holy day in the Christian calendar which has not made the same leap into the secular world. Ascension day. Actually, Thursday (5/25) is Ascension day and the fact that most are clueless about it, including Christians, is evidence of its cultural irrelevance. Which is ironic because in the Apostle’s Creed, a basic statement of faith for Christianity, talks about ascension right smack in the middle with the Christmas and Easter story. In fact, the ascension story gives Christianity its unique texture, its missional energy and amazing adaptability, because it became an antidote to exceptionalism, the inward pressure of all institutions, and it might be the antidote for our day.

The basic story of ascension is that Jesus, after resurrection and spending 40 days with his closest friends, said farewell and disappeared. It sounds fishy to secularists, as it did to me when I was working through the Christian story for myself. It seems so convenient for the first followers to reply, “Well Jesus disappeared,” when seekers asked to see the resurrected Jesus with their own eyes. But here is a historical anomaly: It was only after this story that the first followers became missionaries, going out sharing the story of Jesus as a story that mattered to everyone they met. This is because the story of ascension rapidly scattered this new movement, for it neither had a tomb or a body to point to and say this is ground zero. With Jesus disappearing, Jerusalem could not claim for itself an exceptional status. Whether you believe or not. You’ve got to appreciate this brilliant move.

Lamin Sanneh, a professor of world Christianity at Yale Divinity School and an expert on Christian and Muslim history, credits this quality of non-exceptionalism that allowed Christianity to grow, adapt, and express itself within an ever-changing array of cultural and historical contexts. This non-exceptionalism is appreciated when contrasted to Islam, which remains a faith rooted in specific geographical places, Mecca and Medina, and to a single language, Arabic. Translations of the Quran ….

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