The Orthodox Pages
TALK ON THE ASCENSION
OF OUR LORD
24th MAY 2012
TROPARION TONE 4
"Thou hast ascended in glory, O Christ our God, bringing joy to Thy disciples, for Thou didst reassure them through Thy blessing of the promise of the Holy Spirit. For Thou art the Son of God, the redeemer of the world."
Today the Paschal cycle of forty days from our Lord's Resurrection came to an end and we celebrated the feast of the Ascension. As one of the Great Feasts of the Lord, the Feast of the Ascension is generally neglected by the people and is not given the appropriate celebration status as the other great feast like Christmas, Theophany, the Annunciation, the Resurrection and Pentecost. In the same plight is also the feast of the Transfiguration. The main reason for this is that these feasts are not designated as Public holidays and because they mainly fall on a working day with the Ascension always falling on a Thursday, people cannot take the time off to come to Church. School children especially cannot attend because they are usually in the period for the end of year exams. Thus for many the Ascension is almost unknown. Yet it is a feast of no less importance than the other feasts which we celebrate with much preparation and spiritual splendour. Although we celebrate some feasts, like Christmas and Pascha, more than others, in reality we cannot talk of one feast being more important than the other, because they all belong to the same divine mission for man's salvation. They are all connected like a chain and we cannot have the one without the other. The whole process of this mission of salvation began with the Conception and Birth, the Baptism, the Lord's teachings, the Passion, the Death and Resurrection and ended with the Ascension and the sitting on the right hand of God. The feast of the Ascension comes at the end of this mission; it is the feast of salvation accomplished. It is the event whereby Christ’s mission on earth has been completed. And this mission was none other than to unite man with God.
The Resurrection is a feast of victory and the Ascension is also a feast of victory. The two events are so closely linked not only with each other but also with future events still to come: Pentecost and the Second coming of Christ and the Last Judgment. The Resurrection is the victory over death; through his death on the Cross, Christ defeated death and released humanity from the bonds of Hades which up to that time held everyone captive. The Ascension is the consequence of this victory which allowed humanity, represented by Christ, to re-enter the gates of Paradise in both body and soul, thus reuniting man with God. Christ as God-man is the first to accomplish this; he has opened the way for all of us to enter the same gates of Paradise. But although the gates have been opened, for the moment we can only enter these gates in soul, our bodies will have to wait until the general resurrection from the dead, which will happen some time in the future when Christ comes a second time in glory. For now we remain in the hope of the promise that Christ will prepare a place for us and that on that last day, we will all follow Christ into the heavenly Holy of Holies.
The Ascension of Christ is therefore much more than merely the remembrance of an event in Christ's life. It is not just a remembrance of a supernatural event of a man floating up and disappearing into the clouds. It is an event of salvation accomplished and a prophecy of things still to come. In its theological interpretation the Ascension has much to say on what awaits mankind in the heavens. But before we see all these things, let us look at the Scriptural texts for the event.
The Gospels themselves don't tell us much. Matthew and John keep silent of the event, concentrating only on the events immediately following the Resurrection and Christ's appearances to the disciples. Mark gives a very brief description. He begins with Christ's appearance to the Myrrhbearers and especially to Mary Magdalene and then to the apostles. After Christ had given them instructions to spread the Gospel and baptize people, Mark then writes: "after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God" giving the impression that the Ascension took place on the same day as the first appearance of Christ to the Apostles. What Mark did was simply concentrate all the events from the Resurrection up to the Ascension into one paragraph with the minimum of details and without a description of the actual event of the Ascension.
This lack of information of the Ascension from the three Evangelists Matthew, Mark and John doesn't imply that they didn't think of the event as not important enough to be mentioned. Separately, each Gospel doesn't give us all the details of Christ's life on earth. The Nativity for example was only mentioned by Matthew and Luke and only Luke gives us details of the actual birth and of events immediately after like Christ's circumcision on the eighth day and his coming to the temple on the fortieth day. The Gospels compliment each other and only with the four Gospels together are we given an overall picture. If, as we believe the Gospels are God-inspired, then we must believe that God inspired the evangelists to keep silent on certain details and reveal others. Luke then is the evangelist who was chosen and inspired by God to reveal to us the event of the Ascension.
Luke mentions the Ascension in two places: in his Gospel account and in the Acts of the Apostles of which he is the author. In his Gospel the description is again very brief. After he gives us his account of the Resurrection and Christ’s appearance to the disciples he then tells us of how Christ told the apostles to wait in Jerusalem until they receive power from on high as promised. Luke then says “And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy: And were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God. Amen.”
In the Acts of the Apostles he expands and gives more details of the event. Luke tells us that after the Resurrection Christ showed himself alive after the passion by many infallible proofs and was seen of the apostles for forty days during which he spoke to them of things pertaining to the kingdom of God. Then when Jesus and the Apostles were gathered at the Mount of Olives which was in Bethany just outside of Jerusalem he commanded the apostles to not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, of which he had already told them off. This promise was that in just a few days they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit and after they receive power from the Holy Spirit they would become witnesses of Christ in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Luke then tells us that when he had finished saying these things “while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven. Then returned they unto Jerusalem from the mount called Olives”.
A question many people ask is "Why didn't Jesus ascend immediately after his Resurrection? Why did he wait for forty days? The number 40 is mentioned many times in scripture like the 40 days of rain in the time of the great flood, the 40 days Moses spent in the mount speaking with God, Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness and many others. We can speculate and make theories that the 40 days have a special symbolic meaning, but we should not fall into the trap of numerology that believes that numbers influence our lives. As a general interpretation, the time span of forty days is used symbolically in Holy Scriptures and by the Church to indicate that an appropriate amount of time has passed for "completeness".
The 40 days from the Resurrection to the Ascension is a time span of completion and time needed to verify the fact of the Resurrection. If Christ ascended to heaven on the same day of his Resurrection, not only his enemies, but his very apostles, who at the time of his passion and crucifixion had deserted him out of fear and were weak in faith, would not have been convinced that the Resurrection actually took place. The disciples had to live their Lord's Resurrection and dispel every doubt and unbelief they might have had. They had to dispel every trace of their national Judaic understanding concerning the messiah, to be made completely aware of the universal character of the Saviour's saving work and forget every thought concerning the rise of the worldly royal throne of David and worldly rule.
By remaining on earth for forty days and appearing many times to the apostles, by showing them his wounds, by speaking to them of the prophecies concerning himself, by eating with them, Christ gave enough time for the Resurrection to be truly verified and prepared the apostles for the important work they had been entrusted to carry out from thenceforth, for as St Luke mentions: "Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures, And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And ye are witnesses of these things. And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you."
In fact it is clear that up to that moment the apostles didn't have a complete understanding of their mission. In spite of what they had seen and experienced they still hoped for the political Messiah who would deliver Israel from Roman bondage. That is why they were tempted to ask of Christ: "Lord, will you at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6) They didn't comprehend the universal meaning in Christ's preaching. They didn't perceive the spiritual salvation for all nations which he came to bring to all mankind: A spiritual salvation free from every form of worldly power. What they still lacked was power from on high and enlightenment to be completely initiated into the mystery of the salvation of the world and of this they were told they would, in just a few days, receive power from the Holy Spirit and would become witnesses of Christ in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8)
Thus the forty days were necessary to strengthen the Apostles and prepare them for the work that lay ahead. At the same time, by his appearing and disappearing, Christ prepared the disciples to live without his bodily presence. They had to have time to get used to the fact that shortly they would not be able to see, hear or touch him physically.
Let’s now see the theological aspect of the feast and what it actually means for mankind. The ascension of Christ is his final physical departure from this world after the Resurrection. It is the formal completion of his mission in this world as the Messianic Saviour. It is his glorious return to the Father after having accomplished the work the Father had sent him to do (John 17:4-5). So what was this work? It was to sanctify mankind and to unite him with God. The ascension of Jesus Christ is the final act of this work. The Son of God came “down from heaven” and now having accomplished all things, he returns to the Father bearing for all eternity the wounded and glorified humanity which he had assumed. (John 17). The doctrinal meaning of the ascension is the glorification of human nature, the reunion of man with God. This is what it is means when it says that he sat on the right hand of God. Man has been restored to communion with God, to a union which is, according to Orthodox doctrine, far greater and more perfect than that given to man in his original creation.
Man was created with the potential to be a “partaker of the divine nature”. This participation in divinity is what we Orthodox call theosis or deification and this is what is understood by the “sitting on the right hand”. It is a symbolic expression of man’s theosis and is not to be understood in the literal sense that Christ sat on his Father’s hand or that somewhere in heaven the body of Jesus is sitting on a material throne next to the Father’s.
The meaning of the Ascension and the sitting on the right hand is the realization of man’s foreordained destination, in other words his deification. For the first time man is received into the heavens, not just as a man, but as God-man, participating in the divinity of the Father, or we can even dare to say – man becomes a God by grace. This is what we confess in one of the prayers of the Liturgy “Thou didst bring us from non-being into being; and didst raise us up that were fallen away; and left naught undone till Thou hadst lifted us to heaven, and hadst bestowed upon us Thy kingdom to come”. The Church celebrates the Lord’s Ascension as an event where not only Christ is glorified, but humanity itself. Let us not forget that as God, the Son came to earth and became a man without ever leaving the bosom of the Father. The ascension into heaven is humanity which God glorified with himself. Christ leaves this world in order to “prepare a place for us” and to take us into the blessedness of God s presence. He goes to open the way for all flesh into the “heavenly sanctuary … the Holy Place not made by hands” (Hebrews 9-11).
This is how St. Paul speaks of the Ascension in his Epistle to the Hebrews. He likens it to the Jerusalem temple where the high priests of Israel entered the “holy of holies” to offer sacrifice to God on behalf of themselves and the people. In comparison Christ is the one, eternal and perfect High Priest who offered himself on the cross to God as the one eternal, and perfect Sacrifice, not for himself, but for all sinful men. His Ascension into heaven is his entry into the true Sanctuary not made by men’s hand, the one eternal and perfect Holy of Holies: in the very “Presence of God in the heavens.” (Hebrews 9-24).
As already mentioned, the feast of the ascension is linked to both the Resurrection and Pentecost, but also to the Second coming of Christ and the Last Judgement. Its link with the Resurrection is clear. It is the Resurrected body that ascended to heaven, the body that defeated death by death on the Cross.
The link with the feast of Pentecost is revealed in the words of Christ “It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you. And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.” (John 16:7-8)
The link with the Second Coming is revealed by the two men who appeared in white garments who were angels and told the Apostles that Jesus will come again in the same manner as they saw him ascend into heaven. This is a direct referral and a prophecy concerning the Second Coming of Christ. Christ was seen ascending into heaven on a cloud and Christ, when questioned by the high priest if he was the Christ the Son of God, replied “I AM” and foretold that “Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven with great power and glory.” If you remember last weeks talk I mentioned that from Moses time the words “I AM” was understood as the revelation of God's name, and here Christ is telling the high priests, I AM, I am he who was from the beginning and ever shall be. I am the God that spoke with Moses through the burning bush. Notice that he doesn’t say “the Son of God”, which would refer to his divinity, because his divinity is revealed with the I AM, but now he says the “Son of man” sitting on the right hand of God, in other words his humanity sitting on the right hand of power and coming in the clouds with great power and glory.
According to the angels Christ would come again in the same manner as he was seen ascending into heaven. This is not only referring to how he will come but also where he will come. According to tradition the Second Coming will take place on the Mount of Olives. The Prophet Zacharias said: "And his feet shall stand in that day upon the Mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east." (Zech. 14:4) There will the righteous be blessed with Christ's great mercy and there will sinners lament the eternal and inconsolable lamentation. These two different and contrasting states of people are revealed by the name of the mount and the valley. The peak is known as olives referring to peace and the valley is known as the Valley of Kedron meaning darkness and mourning.
The Ascension was witnessed by the Apostles and although the New Testament doesn't mention anyone else, according to the tradition of the Church, the Mother of God was also present. Christ led his disciples and the woman that gave him birth to the mount that they might see with their own eyes his glorious Ascension. His Mother had to be present at this great glory of her Son, so that as a Mother who was greatly wounded in her heart more than anyone else by witnessing the Passion and Crucifixion of her Son, so also now accordingly she could be healed through the joy of seeing her son ascending in glory to heaven, to be worshipped by the angels and sitting on the throne of his majesty above every authority and power. The apostles also had to be witnesses of the Ascension so that they could be informed by the angels that their divine Master who they saw ascending to heaven would come again to be with them for all eternity.
But while all this is happening on earth what is happening in heaven? We are given a glimpse of the heavenly Ascension through the prophecies. King David prophesied the Ascension when he said in the Psalms: "Lift up your gates, O ye princes, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting gates; and the King of glory shall come in." (Psalm 23:7) This is a verse that we associate with our return to Paradise. If you remember the Resurrection service, after the Procession and the singing of "Christ is Risen", before we re-enter the Church the Priest knocks on the door three times saying: "Lift up your gates, O ye princes, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting gates; and the King of glory shall come in." Someone from within the Church responds with: "Who is this King of glory?" And the Priest again replies: "The Lord of hosts, He is the King of glory." The dialogue is taken from Psalm 23, but what does all this mean?
When Adam was cast out of Paradise we are told that God put an angel with a flaming sword to guard the entrance of Paradise so that no one could enter in. The dialogue the priest has with the person inside represents a dialogue between Christ and that angel. The Priest representing Christ tells the angel to open the doors of paradise so that he who is the King of Glory can enter in. As the doors open, Christ leads the people back into Paradise, which is what the Resurrection actually means, our return to Paradise, our return to the Kingdom of Heaven which is our rightful place where we will reign with Christ forever and ever.
For the feast of the Ascension, the dialogue has the same meaning, with the difference that humanity is represented by Christ who as the king of glory re-enters the gates of Paradise. The angelic powers seeing the human body being transported above them are amazed and astounded, for just as a human by seeing an angel on earth is astounded so also the angels on seeing a human body in heaven are astounded and seek to learn about this strange sight. Thus they ask "who is this king of glory" and are informed that Christ is the king of glory who went down to earth to battle against the powers of darkness, sin and death and has returned victorious.
The dialogue is also symbolic of the Second coming of Christ when He shall judge both the quick and the dead and shall lead the faithful into the Kingdom of Heaven, the New Jerusalem. We see then how all three events are closely knitted together.
Another prophecy from the Psalms concerning the Ascension is: "God is gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of the trumpet" (Psalm 46:7). It could be argued that these words are inapplicable to the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven, because his Ascension was not attended with a shout, or the sound of a trumpet. Let's then see what Scripture tells us of Christ's Ascension. The angels said to the disciples who stood gazing at Jesus as he went up to heaven: "this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven." (Acts 1:10) If Christ is to return in the same manner as he ascended then what does Scripture tell us about the Second Coming. In the first epistle to the Thessalonians Paul writes: "For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God." (1 Thess. 4:16) If his descent will be as his ascent, then as his descent will be accompanied with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God, we can conclude that his ascension was also accompanied with the same. The Apostles never saw or heard it because it belonged to the invisible world of the angels. He ascended with the shout of angels and the trumpet of God.
In the Old Testament there are many references or prophecies concerning the Ascension. The Great Prophet Isaiah describes the ascension again as a dialogue between the Angels and Christ. On seeing Christ in heaven they say: "Who is this that cometh from Edom, with red garments from Bozrah, thus fair in his apparel, in might, with strength?" (Isaiah 63:1) Edom is interpreted as meaning from earth and Bozrah as meaning flesh. Christ replies: "I speak of righteousness and saving judgment." And the angels then ask: "Why are your garments red and your apparel as from a trodden winepress?" (Isaiah 63:2) In other words his garments and flesh which had been baptized in his own Blood were red and resembled someone who had just come out of a winepress after treading on the grapes. The resurrected body of Christ was perfect and immortal and could have been free of the wounds he suffered during his Crucifixion, but he chose to keep the signs of his Passion as a testimony of his great love for mankind. He not only accepted to receive these wounds, he preserved them even after his resurrection and showed them to the angels as symbols of his passion, as proof of his love for us humans, and as the trophies of his victory over death. He also preserved his wounds to remind us that we should never forget what he suffered for us, that by having them forever before us, our hearts will be overfilled with eternal gratitude. St John Chrysostom says: Nothing else is capable of giving birth in our hearts of these saving consequences, than to see God carry the signs of the Crucifixion to the throne of his majesty.
So to finish this talk, the Feast of the Ascension is the event where Christ physically departed from this world, but he left us with two promises – the first that he will send another Comforter to be with us and the second that he will come again at the end of time as we confess in the Creed “to judge both the quick and the dead whose kingdom shall have no end”. Indeed he will send the comforter the Holy Spirit in ten days from now who will teach us all things and guide us into all truth. But does that mean that Christ himself has now abandoned us to another?
The ascending Saviour leaving the earthly world in the flesh, does not abandon it in His Divinity, he does not desert the Church which is his inheritance gained by His blood. He departs only in body, but remains with the Church inseparably”. For this he promised “And, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matt.28:20). These words of the Saviour refer both to the whole history of the Church in its totality and to each separate moment of its existence and to the life of each member of it until the Second Coming. But even in body he has not really abandoned us. His body is present with us for all eternity in the Mystery of the Divine Liturgy, in the precious Body and Blood that we partake of, making if possible for us to continually see, touch and taste him; making it possible for us to carry him within us until the end of time.