By Fr Kyril
This Great Feast of the Lord commemorates His final moments on earth before being taken up into heaven. Jesus led His disciples to the Mount of Olives, and after blessing them and asking them to wait for the fulfillment of the promise of God the Father (which was that He would send to them the Holy Spirit), He ascended into heaven.
Christ made His last appearance on earth, 40 days after His Resurrection from the dead. The Acts of the Apostles states that the disciples were in Jerusalem. Jesus appeared before them and commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the “Promise of the Father.” He said, “You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1: 5).
As the disciples watched, Jesus lifted up His hands, blessed them, and then was taken up out of their sight (Luke 24: 51; Acts 1: 9). Two angels appeared to them and asked them why they were gazing into heaven. Then one of the angels said, “This same Jesus, who just now was taken up into heaven, will return in the same way as you saw Him going into heaven” (Acts 1: 11).
Even though we see Christ departing, the Orthodox Church sees the second and glorious coming of Christ in the same icon. So the icon of the Ascension of Christ also doubles as the icon of Christ’s Second Coming. Jesus said He would return in the same way that He ascended. The icon does not show direction. His love and teachings are still with the Church. The focus of the lower part of the icon is the Theotokos. She represents the entire Church waiting for Christ’s return. The entire group, the Theotokos and the disciples also represent the Church. In this case they represent faithful, learning Christians. The disciples are waiting for the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and are shown in confusion. The disciples shown cannot be the historical gathering, but again an image of the Church. The Apostle Paul who was still Saul, a non-believer at that time, is standing next to the Virgin Mary.
We sometimes hear from those who do not want the festive celebration of Pascha to end, “What is there to be happy about? Wouldn’t it be more proper to grieve, since the Lord left His disciples and the world and ascended to the heavens and took His place at the right hand of God, where He will only return again for the terrible and just Judgment of the living and the dead?”
The Apostles rejoiced because Christ said to them: “I am with you always, even to the end of the world,” and He promised to send down His equal, the Holy Spirit, the Divine Consoler, saying: “Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is a good thing for your sake that I go away: because if I do not go away, the Comforter (the Holy Spirit) will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7).
Thanks to this holy event, and the matter of our very salvation achieved by Christ, we have become “divine humans by potential.” This is the core of the belief of Theosis, or what is also known as the doctrine of deification: That our purpose in life is to come ever closer to God our Creator and Loving Father, by becoming more like Him. To unite ourselves (our humanity) with God. To become god-like by God’s grace. The way for all this has been opened to us by (1) Christ’s Crucifixion and Death, where Jesus breaks the gates of hades and the power of death over us, and (2) by His Resurrection which is also our Resurrection and triumph over death and into eternal life with Him, and (3) by His Ascension into Heaven, where He opens the gates of heaven for us and unites our humanity with His divinity for all eternity.
Through these events, which saved the world, Jesus freed and rescued us from death and corruption. By completing the task of our salvation by establishing the Holy Church, Jesus restores the direct contact with God that was lost through the sinful fall of our ancestors. We now obtain this direct contact with God even now while we are still in the flesh and living in this world, thanks to the special mercy and providence that He has towards us, when we participate in the saving Mysteries of the Church. That is, (1) when we regularly pray and worship (communicate with God directly and through His saints), and (2) when we regularly receive the sacraments (the Mysteries) especially Confession and Communion, where we are constantly forgiven, purified, sanctified and where we come into the most intimate contact and union with our God by receiving His actual Body and Blood. This is a very physical and tangible way in which we unite ourselves to God and where we unite our humanity with divinity.
Troparion of the Feast of Ascension (Tone 4)
O Christ our God, upon fulfilling Your dispensation for our sake, You ascended in Glory, uniting the earthly with the heavenly. You were never separate but remained inseparable, and cried out to those who love You, “I am with you and no one is against you.”