Thursday May 10—Today is Ascension Day, which means that Dutch people do not have to go to work. In many countries Ascension Day is not a public holiday, but in the Netherlands it is. Forty days after his resurrection Jesus ascended to heaven. We read about it in in the Bible in the first chapter of the book of Acts. That event is commemorated today. A relatively small group of Dutch people, mostly of rather conservative Reformed vintage, will go to church. But it is safe to say that the vast majority of the population has no idea what Ascension Day is all about. For most it is a day for family activities and shopping, and furniture shops and garden centers will be very busy.
Celebrating Ascension Day goes far back in time. Some of the Church Fathers of the early ages already mention it and from trhe Middle Ages onwards it was an important day in the liturgical calendar. Different folkloristic customs sprung up around this day, such as the tradition of ‘dauwtrappen’ (literally: dancing on the grass that is moist because of the dew). In times past people would get up extremely early, even before sunrise, and would dance with bare feet, and sing, on the wet grass. Presumably this originated in a pagan custom. Today this tradition has developed into walks in groups or bike tours in the (not too early) morning of Ascension Day.
In general, Seventh-day Adventists do not attach great value to celebrating the Christian feast days. Some are, in fact, very much opposed to paying any attention to them. I experienced this just weeks ago, when on the Sabbath just before Easter I preached in a Dutch Adventist church. My sermon was about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. After the service I was sharply criticized by a lady, who felt that I should have preached about a truly Adventist topic, as for instance the heavenly sanctuary, and not about something she could have heard in any other church! Perhaps my sister-in-the-faith would have been more satisfied if I had preached about Jesus’ ascension, for that topic fits seamlessly with the heavenly sanctuary theme.
In several places the book of Hebrews refers to the moment when Jesus departed from the earth and ascended to heaven, where he promptly began his ‘work’ as the great heavenly High Priest. One of the prominent themes of this book of the Bible is the radical difference between the imperfect earthly high priests and the perfect heavenly High Priest, who having acquired the right to become our Mediator can assure us of our eternal salvation.
Most (?) Adventists believe that this heavenly ‘work’ of Christ our our High Priest consists of two phases. They argue that in the second phase, which began in 1844, Christ is ‘active’ in the most holy part of the heavenly sanctuary, where the ‘investigative judgment’ takes place. It is a rather complex teaching that is based on the premise that the heavenly sanctuary must be an exact parallel of the early sanctuary, since God told Moses to construct the tabernacle with two apartments (the holy and the most holy) in accordance with a heavenly model that he was shown by God.
There has been almost constant controversy among Adventists about the question whether Jeus’ work in the heavenly sanctuary consists of one single phase or of two plases. (In the book of Hebrews there is, remarkably enough, no mention of a two-phase ministry.) Desmond Ford was the most prominent supporter of the single phase option. The controversy that erupted cost him his job in the church, and left a trail of misery across the denomination. Today many Adventist theologians and pastors agree with Ford, although they are often reluctant to admit this publicly. To me, the one-phase option sounds quite convincing, but rather than fight about this issue I would much prefer that we simply accept that there are differences of opinion. After all, it seems that most of us agree on the core of what is at stake. Christ came to this world to die on our behalf. But he was raised from the dead. Many men and women met him during the ensuing forty days and testified that the Lord ‘was truly risen’. When Christ departed from this earth, he was fully entitled to be called the perfect Mediator / High Priest, who can ensure that all who accept him will enjoy the eternal benefits of what he accomplished on the cross. I cannot understand how this all fits together. We are dealing with a heavenly reality that far exceeds our human intellectual capacities. But the essence of this heavenly reality is ‘revealed’ to us in words and images that give us some idea of what Christ did and does for us. In any case, it tells us enough that we may rest assured that somehow the gap between God and us has been bridged. For me that is all I need to know.