The Orthodox Pages
TALK ON THE
FEAST OF THE ASCENSION
13th MAY 2010
Today the Paschal cycle of forty days from the day of the Resurrection came to an end and we celebrated the feast of the Ascension of our Lord. During these forty days the Lord made various appearances to his disciples so that they would be convinced that he was actually resurrected and also to inform them how he would remain with them in the future. He promised them that he would send another “Comforter” the Holy Spirit who would remain with them for all eternity, then leading them to the Mount of Olives and blessing them with his holy hands that had the wounds of the nails, he ascended upwards and disappeared from their sight.
The Church's celebration of the Ascension is not 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. The feast of the Ascension is the feast of salvation accomplished. It is the event whereby Christ’s mission on earth has been completed. What was this mission? God became man to unite man to God. The whole process of this mission of salvation began with the Conception and Birth, the teachings of salvation, the Passion, the Death and Resurrection and ended with the Ascension and the sitting on the right hand of God.
Before we see what this actually means let’s see how the New Testament testifies to this event. The first account of the Ascension is found in the Gospel of Mark (16:14-19). The description is very brief. Mark tells how after the Resurrection Christ appeared to the Myrrhbearers and especially to Mary Magdalene and how the disciples didn’t believe her when she told them that she had seen him and spoken with him. Jesus then appeared to the Disciples as they sat eating and upbraided them for their lack of faith and then commands them to spread the Gospel saying also that “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believes not shall be damned.” He then tells them of signs that will follow those who believe: “In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” Then as if everything happened on the one day Mark says that “after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God.” Mark simply concentrates 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.
The next account of the Ascension if from the Gospel of St. Luke. Luke’s 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.”
The third and more detailed account is again from Luke, not from the Gospel, but from the Acts of the Apostles. 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 Olivet or 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 Olivet”.
From what we have just heard we see that the Feast of the Ascension is not only the event where Christ ascended in body to heaven but also a prophetic event. We are told that in a few days the Holy Spirit will be given to the Church and that Christ will come again a second time in the same manner as the Apostles saw him rise to heaven.
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). 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. It is indeed, the very penetration of man into the inexhaustible depths of divinity. 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 of 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).
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. Through the Resurrection humanity was released from the bonds of Hades and now, not only in soul, but also in body, man is capable of passing through the gates of heaven. For now humanity is represented by Christ, but we have the promise that he will prepare a place for us, thus our hope is that on that last day we will all follow Christ into the heavenly Holy of Holies.
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.”
Notice that he doesn’t say “the Son of God”, which would refer to his divinity, but the “Son of man”, in other words his humanity sitting on the right hand of power and coming in the clouds (with great power and glory.)
Thus 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”.
But there are some other meanings to the feast which we receive not from Holy Scripture, but from Holy Tradition. The best way to understand the Church’s understanding for any feast is through the Divine Services. Many traditions of the Church have been passed down orally from one generation to the next. These oral traditions have found their way into the liturgical hymns and through the hymns to the Icon because iconography is a liturgical art, having the same spiritual depth and character as the hymns. Let’s therefore see the Icon of the Ascension and see what we can read from it.
The first thing we notice is that most of the Icon is taken up by the group consisting of the Mother of God, the two angels and the apostles whereas the principle figure of the ascending Christ is much smaller than the other persons depicted as if he were of secondary importance. Strange as it may seem the Icon actually conforms to the Gospel accounts where the event of the Ascension itself is given only a few words and only by two Evangelists. The accounts of the Evangelist concentrate all their attention on something else – on the last instructions of the Saviour, establishing and defining the role and significance of the Church in the world and its connection and relationship with God. The Icon shows something very similar and the central theme lies not in the fact of the Ascension itself, but in the significance and consequences it has for the Church and the world.
The Ascension of our Lord took place on the Mount of Olives and in Icons this is shown by the hilly landscape in the background and some olive trees, although not all Icons show the trees. The Saviour is represented as ascending in glory shown by the mandorla composed of three concentric circles. The mandorla is a symbol used in Iconography to represent the high heavens and the divine glory. The idea came into use by how the ancients saw the visible sky which actually also corresponds to our modern conception of it as consisting of several spheres (troposphere, stratosphere and ionosphere). The mandorla is supported by two angels. This doesn’t mean that angels lifted Christ to heaven: the Lord ascended by his own power and had no need of assistance. They are shown in the Icon merely as an added expression of his glory and greatness.
In the foreground, with the Mother of God in the centre, we see two groups of apostles and two angels. Here the role of the angels is different: they are the messengers of Divine Providence foretelling the Second Coming as we have already seen.
The presence of the Mother of God at the Lord’s Ascension is not mentioned in Holy Scriptures, but Holy Tradition has passed on this information through the texts of the Divine service, such as the 9th canticle of the Canon: “Rejoice, Thou Mother of Christ our God, seeing with the apostles Him whom Thou didst engender ascending to heaven, and glorifying Him.” In the Icons of the Ascension the Mother of God occupies a very special position. Placed directly below the ascending Saviour, She is as it were the axis of the whole composition. Her importance is often emphasised by Her standing on higher ground, which singles out still more Her central position. This group, with the Mother of God in the centre, represents our Saviour’s inheritance, gained by His blood—the Church He was physically leaving behind on earth, which, through the promised descent of the Holy Spirit at the coming Pentecost, would receive all the fulness of its being. With the feast of the ascension the Lord finished his work and took the deified human body up to heaven, but the work of salvation continues with the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, this time for the deification of all men.
The place of this group, which represents the whole Church, in the foreground of the icon is a graphic expression of the significance and role, which Holy Scriptures attribute to the establishment of the Church in the last commandments of the Saviour. The fact that the Church is represented in its fulness and not just the people who were historically present at the Ascension, is shown by the presence of Apostle Paul, who historically could not have been there with the other Apostles, as well as by the significance of the Mother of God. She who had taken God into Herself, who had become the temple of the incarnate Word, is the personification of this Church—the body of Christ, whose Head is the ascending Christ. Therefore, as the personification of the Church, the Mother of God is placed immediately below the ascending Christ and in the icon they supplement one another. Her uplifted hands as a gesture of prayer expresses her role and the role of the Church which she personifies in relation to God, the connection with Him through prayer, the Church’s intercession for the world.
The direction of movement of the whole group in the foreground, the gestures both of the angels and the apostles, the focus of their eyes and postures, everything is directed upwards towards the Source of the life of the Church, its Head Who abides in heaven. (Although sometimes some of the apostles turn towards each other or towards the Mother of God) It is as though the message of the Church is for all its members to turn eyes and thoughts on high, to imagine ourselves to be on the Mount of Olives and to see the Redeemer borne upon the clouds and to join the apostles in their transport towards the ascending Christ for as St. Leo the Great says, “The Ascension of Christ is our elevation, and whither the glory of the Head has preceded by anticipation, the hope of the body too is called.”
The ascending Saviour Himself 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. This is why the gesture of the Saviour is directed towards the group in the foreground whom He is leaving behind and towards the external world. The icon conveys this connection of His with the Church, by always depicting Him as blessing with His right hand and usually holding in His left hand the Gospels or a scroll—the symbol of the teacher, of preaching. He ascended blessing, not having blessed. St Luke tells us “While he blessed them, he was parted from them...” and His blessing does not cease with His Ascension. Depicting Him in the act of blessing, the icon shows graphically that even after the Ascension He remains the source of blessing for the apostles, and through them for their successors and for all those whom they bless. As we have said, in the left hand the Saviour holds the Gospels or a scroll, the symbol of the teacher, of preaching. By this the icon shows that the Lord, while dwelling in heaven, remains not only the source of blessing but also the source of knowledge, communicated to the Church by the Holy Spirit.
The two angels standing behind the Mother of God and pointing towards the Saviour announce to the apostles that the ascended Christ will come again in glory “in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven”. “The Acts of the Apostles mention two angels”, says St. John Chrysostom, “because there actually were two, and there were two because only the testimony of two is established (2 Cor. 13:1).” Relating the actual fact of the Saviour’s Ascension and the teaching of the Church, the icon of the Ascension is thus at the same time also a prophetic icon, foretelling the Second Coming of Jesus Christ in glory. This is why on icons of the Last Judgment He is depicted as on the icons of the Ascension, this time however not as the Redeemer but as the Judge of the universe. In this prophetic aspect of the icon the group of the apostles with the Mother of God in the centre represents the image of the Church waiting for the Second Coming.
TROPARION FOR THE FEAST OF THE ASCENSION OF OUR LORD
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.