On the Feast of the Ascension, the Orthodox Church does not merely commemorate an historical event in the life of Christ. On this day, the Church celebrates Christ’s physical departure from the world and His glorification with God the Father.
For forty days after His Resurrection, Jesus remained on earth. Filled with the glory and honour of His Divinity, He appeared to His Disciples at various times and places. By eating and drinking with His followers and conversing with them about the Kingdom of God, Jesus assured them that He was truly alive in His risen and glorified Body. (The glorification of Jesus refers to His Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension into heaven. When we speak of Christ’s glorified Body, we refer to Its honour, splendour, majesty and visible radiance – it gave off rays of bright light!)
The time span of forty days is used symbolically in the Holy Scriptures and by the Church to indicate that an appropriate amount of time has passed for “completeness”. [The rains of the great flood lasted for forty days. Christ prayed in the wilderness for forty days. We fast for forty days to prepare before the feasts of the Nativity and the Resurrection (Pascha).]
Ascension falls on the fortieth day after the Resurrection. On this day, Jesus appeared to His Disciples and gave them His last commandment – to preach the Kingdom of God and the repentance and forgiveness of sins in His name to all nations, beginning with Jerusalem. Then He led them out of Jerusalem toward Bethany to the Mount of Olives. He lifted up His hands and blessed them. As His Disciples were looking on, He was lifted up – or “ascended” – and a cloud took Him out of sight. While they were looking up, two angels in white robes appeared and said to them: “Why are you men from Galilee standing here looking into the sky? Jesus, Who has been taken up from you into heaven, this same Jesus will come back in the same was as you have seen Him go there.”
The Ascension is, therefore, a sign and symbol of the Second Coming. Christ will return to the earth in the same manner as He left it. When the risen Lord returns again in glory, God’s will for mankind will be fulfilled.
Jesus completed His earthly mission of bringing salvation to all people and physically was lifted up from this world into heaven. The meaning and the fullness of Christ’s Resurrection is given in the Ascension. Having completed His mission in this world as the Saviour, He returned to the Father in heaven Who sent Him into the world. In ascending to the Father, He raises earth to heaven with Him!
Before He ascended into heaven, Jesus told His followers to remain in Jerusalem because in a few days they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit (see Acts 1:1-12 and Luke 24:13-53). Christ ascends to heaven and sends the Holy Spirit to the world. The Spirit comes to reconcile and reunite the world with God. Christ’s Body is in heaven and His Spirit is here on earth. Ascension is also a sign of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
The Symbol of Faith – the Nicene Creed – which summarizes the important doctrines and teachings of the Church, contains these words: “And ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father.” The importance and meaning of this feast is that Jesus glorified our fallen and sinful humanity when He returned to the Father. In Jesus, Who is perfect God and perfect man, man is reunited with God. At His birth, Jesus took on our human nature. Through His Ascension He deified this human nature by taking His Body to heaven and giving it a place of honour at the right hand of the Father. With Christ, man’s nature also ascends. Through Christ, man becomes a “partaker of divine nature” (II Peter 1:4). When Christ became man, He took up human nature and we share our human nature with Him.
It is through Christ, Who is perfect God and perfect man, that we “partake of divine nature.” When we say that Christ is sitting at the right hand of the Father, we mean that man has been restored to communion with God because Christ gives His humanity – which He shares with us – a permanent place of honour in heaven. Christ honours us by putting us close to the Father.
We celebrate the Ascension with the same great joy the Apostles had when they were promised that the Holy Spirit would come to bear witness to the presence of Christ in the Church. Ascension day is joyful, not only because Christ is glorified, but also because we are glorified with Him. We are joyful because He goes to “prepare a place” for us and because He is forever present before the Father to intercede for us.
This article is reprinted with some minor editing from Ascension and Pentecost, Commission on Religious Education, Romanian Orthodox Episcopate, 1975, pp. 10-11.
~ Troparion (Tone 4) ~
You ascended in glory, O Christ our God, making the Disciples joyful with the promise of the Holy Spirit. And this blessing convinced them that You are the Son of God, the Saviour of the World!