The Elusive Meaning of Ascension Day

ascension day in Switzerland

Today is a national holiday in Switzerland.

An alert reader – and I seem to have many of them – would point out that there are actually no national holidays in Switzerland since each of the fiercely-independent 26 cantons must decide on its own holidays, but in fact all 26 agree to observe this day.

Which must mean that today is a very important day.

The church bells began ringing all over Zurich at 4:00 yesterday afternoon, and the stores closed soon after in preparation for the holiday. I dutifully went to German class last night, but most of my classmates had started the holiday early. (I had lots of individual attention, which I have always needed in school.)

As I walked the dog this morning, I realized that the neighborhood was unusually quiet. I might have written “not a creature was stirring,” but that line is already taken and associated with another holiday.

For those readers who need some help, today is Ascension Day, exactly 40 days after the Resurrection of Christ. (Easter Monday is also a national holiday in Switzerland, this very religious land in which I now live.)

Frankly, and you may be surprised to learn this from me, Ascension Day is hardly the biggest day on the Christian calendar. I’ve never tried to rank Christian holy days, but I’m pretty sure Ascension Day doesn’t rank very high for very many people.

Personally I wouldn’t put it in the Top 5.

As a child I remember going to church one time with my dad for an evening service on Ascension Day, and even then I remember thinking it was a strange thing to do. I don’t remember anymore what the sermon was about, which a lot of children will also undoubtedly say about the times they went to church when I was preaching.

Having a holiday associated with a relatively insignificant event in Jesus’ life – only Luke and Acts mention it – prompted me to do some reading this morning, and among other things I discovered a lengthy article in the journal on Reformed theology to which I’ve contributed for more than 20 years. I even plan to preach about the ascension on Sunday.

Even at that I’m at a loss to explain today.

Deep in the Swiss DNA there seems to be a religious longing that finds its expression not in church attendance, but in certain cultural reminders – like church bells and holidays. Given the chance to let go of those reminders, they (almost) always vote to retain them.

After only four months in the country I don’t claim to understand any of this, but will keep trying. And of course I’ll keep you posted.

(Photo: Religious observances tend to be more visible – and colorful – in the small villages. I saw some unusual costumes in Zurich yesterday but was told they had more to do with the end of exams than with a religious holiday.)

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.


4 Responses to The Elusive Meaning of Ascension Day

  1. Theda Williams May 29, 2014 at 7:42 am #

    I never appreciated Ascension Day, especially as a child. I always resented having to go to church on Wednesday night. Recently, I took a class on sacraments and liturgy and discovered a major truth that i had missed. In the sacraments, particularly communion, we are united with Christ, even in his ascension. We don’t bring Him down to our level, but we are raised to His. That concept just reminds me of the strength and victory we already have.

    • Doug May 29, 2014 at 8:55 am #

      Theda, good to hear from you. I have thought about being united with Christ in his death (part of the baptism liturgy), but have never considered what it might mean to be united with him in his ascension. Will have to reflect a bit on that, but it sounds promising. I may end up quoting you on Sunday.

  2. Fred Anderson May 29, 2014 at 10:10 am #


    I’ll not forget being in Switzerland some eighteen years ago, with the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, as we were trying to help with the Nazi Gold issue. As it happened, one of the days in our itinerary was Ascension Day, which meant that all of the government officials with whom we were trying to meet, were not there, and everything was closed. When I asked why, I was told “It is ascension day.” Really? Then the devil got a hold on me and I ask our Swiss interpreter, “And what is ascension day?” He simply looked at me and said, “It has something to do with Christ.”

    I too was struck with how the day, relatively unknown in the Protestant house, had, in Switzerland, just become another day off from work, a time to travel to the mountains or have a parade–not unlike what has happened to Christmas and Easter for many folk.

    But in this last five decades of liturgical renewal, Ascension Day has taken on new life in the Protestant house, though few actually have services on Sunday, but rather, turn the 7th Sunday of Easter into Ascension Sunday. (The New Common Lectionary even provides that the lessons for Ascension Day may be used in lieu of those for the 7th Sunday.) I am reminded that Calvin used it as a reminder that Jesus ascended into heaven in risen flesh and blood and is not as some ephemeral spirit, and now stand in risen flesh in the Father’s presence, and does so, not only as our advocate, but as a sign that we too shall stand there–that whatever the resurrected body is, it is fully acceptable in God’s presence.

    But more, in these turbulent years since that visit to Switzerland, Jesus’ ascension has come to serve as a reminder of the Lordship of Christ, perhaps even more than the festival of Christ the King. Jesus has been raised to be Lord over all of life and available to all anywhere at any time. Not only does that have sacramental elements, but also our traditional Reformed conviction about God’s sovereignty.

    Sorry, some of my blog on todays scripture texts slipped in.
    Hope you are both well.


    • Doug May 29, 2014 at 10:20 am #

      I might have known, Fred, that a comment from you would be both liturgically and theologically challenging. (I miss the conversations about the lectionary texts at staff meetings.) I want to say something on Sunday about the New Testament’s insistence on the physical reality of the resurrected body, but haven’t found the words as yet. Whatever I end up saying about it, I’m glad that I belong to a tradition that proclaims it.

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