Imagine what would have happened had Jesus not left Earth.
Christianity likely would not have spread, for it was the belief that Christ was no longer on Earth that decentralized Christianity, challenging it to adopt and adapt to other lands and languages.
May 25 is Ascension Day, a celebration of Jesus’ ascension into heaven after his death. Most people — including many Christians — are unaware of this holy day. But it helps explain the birth of the church, and the early church's missionary zeal and character.
Ascension Day offers an antidote to Christian exceptionalism.
The first disciples claimed that Jesus vanished after 40 days of meeting with them. This inaugurated the first missionary movement in history. Prior to the early Christians, no adherents had left their land and language to convince foreigners of the universality of their faith. Religion was an ethnic expression. Every city had their patron God. No one felt the need to take their god to other cities except for safe travels
This would have been the fate of Christianity, too, if not for Jesus’ ascension. Ascension took away the temptation of the first disciples to claim a central location and language. Lamin Sanneh, a professor of missions and world Christianity at Yale Divinity School, points out that Christianity adapted through multiple cultural and historical contexts because it was detached from a geographical center.
This rapid adaptation manifests in the Christian Scriptures. The Jewish Bible is mostly in Hebrew, the language of the Jewish patriarchs; the Quran was scripted in Arabic, Muhammed’s mother tongue. But the Gospels were written in Koine, (simple) Greek, though Jesus taught in Aramaic.
The original Scripture of Christ is a translation. The essence of Christianity is to be in constant translation.
It is the nature of any organization to centralize. Often this is done through connecting a land and/or a language it to its founder — the leader's birth and burial places often become holy grounds requiring pilgrimage. This is an ingenious form of message control.
The Jewish people made a treacherous journey three times a year and Muslims are called to make pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, Muhammed's birthplace and sites of ministry. Land and language are powerful cohesives for these religions.
But the strong affirmation of Christ’s absence kept the early church from centralizing around Jerusalem. Without the body of Jesus to create a memorial, no land or language could monopolize claim to sacredness. Ascension, in one sense, is an abdication of worldly authority. It is the empowerment of everyone, no matter their land and language.
Unfortunately, the church later fell into the orbit of other land-based religions and began to argue about the importance of succession, elevating the bishopric of Rome, and later launching the Crusades to "reclaim" the “Holy Land.” This historical shift only highlights the importance of the earliest claims of Jesus’ ascension — exhibiting what happens when Ascension Day becomes just another holy day, and not a central tenet of the church’s story.
What followed was predictable. With the elevation of Rome, Christianity had land and a language that became more sacred than any other. Christians began to worship only in Latin any other version of Scripture other than the Vulgate became sacrilegious.
To avoid this instinct of exceptionalism, Christians should celebrate Ascension Day with the same energy and creativity as we celebrate Christmas and Easter. The church needs to declare that Christ is not here, because every culture is tempted to make themselves the presence of Christ on Earth.
The history of American Christianity is no exception in this itch for exceptionalism. America’s foreign policy has always been tinged with religious zeal because America sees itself as the “city on a hill,” with a “Manifest Destiny” to conquer and spread democracy as its divine prerogative.
I believe that American Christianity needs to drop the delusion that America is the “city on the hill,” and learn to listen to other nation’s Christians. When we begin to see the significance of every land and language, and understand that Christ is not here in America more than anywhere else, we are cured of exceptionalism.
The church can serve as a prophetic voice by celebrating Ascension Day — a day that says there is no land or language that is exceptional.
Christ is not here. Christ is everywhere. In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ promises, “Where two or more are gathered, I will be there.” A Christ who is on Earth cannot make that promise. A Christ absent in Jerusalem can promise to be everywhere.