On Thursday of this week we reach the 40th day from our Lord’s Resurrection, on which we commemorate His glorious Ascension into Heaven. It the Book of Acts, and in St Luke’s Gospel, we hear a description of how the Lord tells his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the promised Holy Spirit to descend. Then, after telling them this, He is carried up into Heaven, as a cloud “receive[s] Him out of their sight.”
As the disciples are standing there, dumbfounded, gazing up at the clouds and wondering what to do next, two angels appear and speak to them, saying, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.”
Thus, the Ascension is connected with the Second Coming. Just as the Lord ascended, so He will descend when He comes again. And our hope, as Christians, is to be caught up with Him at that time, as the Apostle Paul says. Just as His resurrection makes possible and foreshadows our resurrection, so His ascension makes possible and foreshadows our ascension.
Wonderfully, gloriously, beyond all hope and expectation, Jesus has raised up our humanity – that same humanity that has been brought low in sin and corruption, disease and death. Not only has He raised it from the dead, but He has lifted up all the way to heaven, and seated it at the right hand of the Father. And so, from a hopeless situation, He has brought us to a situation where, in spite of our sinfulness, we can yet hope to be seated one day, together with Christ, there beside our heavenly Father.
For that to happen, though, we need the Holy Spirit. And to receive the Holy Spirit, we must remain in Jerusalem. “Do not depart from Jerusalem,” said the Lord before his Ascension. St Gregory Palamas points out that it’s as if the Lord had said, “do not depart from peace,” since Jerusalem means the place of peace. In St. Luke’s Gospel, just before the Ascension, the Lord says “Peace to you” to his disciples, and His desire is that His peace remain with them always. When we reject the peace of God, we reject the presence of the Holy Spirit, and vice versa.
So we must abide in Jerusalem, seeking peace with God (that is, reconciliation through repentance and confession) and peace with one another. We must be lovers of peace – not the false peace offered by the authorities of this world, peace in exchange for accepting lies – but true peace, which comes from loving Christ above all.
Abiding in Jerusalem also means abiding in the place of prayer. At the very end of St Luke’s Gospel, we find the disciples worshiping the Lord, returning to Jerusalem “with great joy,” and being “continually in the temple praising and blessing God.” This feast calls us to imitate them, by setting our minds on heaven every day. We are to imitate them by joyfully approaching the labour of prayer; it is a labour, but it is meant to be a labour of love in which we praise and bless the God of love.
Thus through prayer and worship we are always with God, and Christ is always with us: “Lo I am with you always,” He says. The Lord ascends from us into Heaven, and yet He remains with us. “I am with you, and no one can be against you,” as the Kontakion for this feast says. In the flesh He ascends to heaven, and seats our human nature at the right hand of the Father, but through the gift of the Holy Spirit we are always united with Him, and He is always helping us.
So, we ought not to fear anything, because the Lord is with us always, no matter what, and has prepared a glorious destiny for us. We don’t need to grow faint-hearted as we struggle to live as Christians, because Christ has made a pathway to Heaven, and He will enable us to follow it. We can’t believe the world when it tell us that the world is all there is to live for, because the fulfilment of our life and our joy is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again for us.
Rather, we must remember, each day, and every moment of each day, that Christ has risen from the dead and ascended into Heaven for us and yet has not abandoned us in any way. He has gone to prepare a place for us, but is mystically present with us. We must cling to Him, knowing that as we do so, no one can be against us; no one can destroy the indestructible life of Christ that abides in us as we abide in Him. When we proclaim His Ascension, we proclaim the promise that He will raise us up above all evil and death and everything that drags us down in this world. We proclaim the promise that His love will triumph in the end.
Christ is ascended! From earth to Heaven!