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The ascension of Jesus Christ to heaven may be in the creed and on the church calendar, but compared to Christmas, Easter, or even Pentecost, it doesn’t get much airtime (My apologies for the pun.).1 Since this year Ascension Sunday falls on the same date as Mother’s Day, I would like to sketch the doctrine’s connection to motherhood using Psalm 113 as a guide.

Psalm 113 begins by summoning to worship the servants of the Lord—that is, the God of Israel (v. 1), who is worthy of worship across all time (v. 2) and space (v. 3). God’s relation to space occupies the following verses of the psalm. The poet portrays God as seated in glory at such an exalted status as to be “above the heavens” (v. 4; all quotes NRSV); in fact, God “looks far down on the heavens and the earth” (v. 6, emphasis mine)! In the biblical cosmology, the heavens and the earth encompass the totality of the cosmos. With its paradoxical language that God is higher up than the highest heights of creation, this psalm insists that God transcends the universe.

Today we might say that God is “off the charts,” but God’s infinite transcendence doesn’t translate into aloof hauteur. Instead, God zooms in on the lowliest of persons in the ancient social hierarchy: the poor lying in the dust, the needy sitting on the ash heap, “the barren woman” in her ostracized state (vv. 7, 9). It’s these, not the high and mighty of the earth, who receive God’s special attention.

In fact, verses 7 and 8 quote lines from the celebratory prayer of one such formerly barren woman, Hannah, and verse 9 sums up her story (1 Sam 1:1–2:21). Hannah wrestled with pregnancy envy and the harassment of her rival, who had produced several children. In her distress, Hannah pledged that if God would grant her a son, she would return him to the Lord and dedicate him to temple service. God answered her request, and she gave birth to Samuel, the great prophet and judge who anointed Israel’s first two kings.

After giving her Samuel, God blessed her with more children as well. Psalm 113 presents Hannah’s experience as a case study of how God Most High delights to raise up the humiliated, miserable, and discouraged to a position of honor and strength. That’s good news for young moms feeling frazzled and failure-prone; for working moms juggling kids and career; for single moms striving to do it all by themselves; for grieving moms who’ve lost a child; for wishing-to-be moms struggling with infertility; for foster and adoptive moms and moms of blended families whose love stretches beyond biological boundaries.

This psalm, though, is Janus-faced: it looks not only back to Hannah’s story but also ahead to the New Testament. In fact, Psalm 113 is the mirror image of the Gospel of Luke. Where the psalm ends with the barren woman becoming a mother, Luke’s account begins with the aged Elizabeth conceiving John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary conceiving Christ (Luke 1:5–45). Psalm 113:7–8 echoes Hannah’s hymn of triumph, and so does Mary’s Magnificat (compare Luke 1:46–55 with 1 Sam 2:1–10).

Luke’s record consistently favors the poor, needy, and other marginalized figures, dignifying shepherds, lepers, tax collectors, foreigners, and women. Late in this Gospel, God the Father raises up Jesus himself “from the dust” of death and seats him not simply “with princes” (Ps 113:7–8) but in heaven itself (Luke 24). Luke concludes where Psalm 113 starts: with the Lord, Jesus Christ, exalted high above all nations and receiving the praise of his servants (compare Luke 24:44–52 with Ps 113:1–5). His ascension sets in motion world missions (as described in the book of Acts); the conquest of hostile spiritual powers and authorities (Ephesians, Colossians, Revelation); and the perfection of atonement in the heavenly Holy of Holies (Hebrews).

The New Testament both qualifies and expands the expectations that Hannah and Psalm 113 raise related to motherhood. On the one hand, Jesus himself reminds his hearers in Luke’s Gospel that not every person in need receives a providential blessing (Luke 4:24–27). Nor does every story end happily, at least in the short run. Elizabeth’s miracle baby winds up imprisoned (Luke 3:19–20) and beheaded (Luke 9:9), while Mary’s is betrayed and crucified (Luke 22–23). There will be times in our lives when conditions on the ground are cruel and the God seated high above the heavens seems distant and uninvolved indeed.

On the other hand, the Ascension teaches us to lift our sight and set our hopes higher than on this-worldly satisfactions. All our longings, whether of mind or heart or womb, find their final fulfillment in Jesus Christ and the restoration of all things that he embodies and enacts. The One who is higher than the heavens, who sits unbound and uncontained by the universe and its laws, brings new life from childless wombs and garden tombs and even causes a physical body to transcend the cosmos—and all this neither perfunctorily nor haphazardly but “according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:9–10). This Mother’s Day and Ascension Sunday, let us celebrate Mary’s Son above all.


  1. It has received growing attention from Christian scholars over the past century. The first study came out of Oxford’s circle of Inklings. Charles Williams’ theological interpretation of church history, The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church (London: Religious Book Club, 1939) had the Ascension as its starting point. Templeton Prize-winning scientific theologian Thomas F. Torrance set the doctrine in dialogue with Einsteinian physics in Space, Time and Incarnation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969) and Space, Time and Resurrection (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976). Theology and ethics professor Douglas Farrow traced its historical and continuing relation to Christian cosmology, ecclesiology, and political theology in Ascension and Ecclesia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999) and Ascension Theology (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2011). In What is Jesus Doing? (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020), theologian Edwin Chr. van Driel and his co-contributors applied the doctrine to pastoral care, preaching and public worship, and missional theology amid post-Christendom conditions in North America, while in Rethinking the Atonement (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2022), New Testament scholar David Moffitt used it to challenge conventional wisdom about Christ’s priesthood.

Jerome Van Kuiken

Jerome Van Kuiken, Ph.D., is Professor of Christian Thought at Oklahoma Wesleyan University and an adjunct instructor in theology for Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University.

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