Celebrating the Feast of Christ's Ascension

Celebrating the Feast of Christ’s Ascension

June 10, 2021 – The significance of Christ’s Holy Ascension cannot be overstated. It changed the heavens and it put a calling on us with a promise that we too might ascend into heaven following our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. From our previously fallen state, we celebrate the uniting of humanity to God and the heavens. Orthodox Christians celebrate this day with a special feast. I have gathered some incredible writing on this feast from sources far more knowledgeable than I am, with the hope this helps you better understand why we celebrate this feast and why it is so important.

From Priest Ioannis Fortomas at OrthoChristian.com:

Heaven and Earth are united on this Feast of Christ’s Ascension. Forty days after the Resurrectionthe Lord took the eleven disciples to Galilee, to the Mount which He had appointed, there some worshiped Him yet some doubted. Then, He said unto them: All authority is given to me in Heaven and on Earth. Go therefore, and Baptize all the Nations in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to keep all that I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, even until the end of the Age. These are the last earthly words of the Savior to the Disciples. They are poignant words, because in them is summarized the purpose of the Church in the world: to initiate man into the mystery of Christ’s Death and Resurrection in the name of the Holy Trinity by the threefold immersion in the Baptismal waters; and to furthermore preserve man in the Teaching of Christ: this is the Orthodox Faith. This is the Gospel, and the Sacramental Life of the Church—most crucially as it is lived by the Church through the Holy Liturgy, wherein we live Christ’s Life. We live Christ’s Life in and through the Holy Mysteries because Christ has not abandoned His Church: His Ascension to the Heavens, where He sits at the right hand of the Father and from whence He shall come again to judge the World and all those who lived in the World—this is the mystery we grasp on this Feast. And we also grasp another, loftier mystery. We—mankind—are now seated at the right hand of the Father in the person of His Only-Begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. So I repeat it again: The heavenly and the earthly are united on this Feast of Christ’s Ascension. They are united and can never be separated. By Christ’s assuming flesh in the Incarnation, He deified our mortal nature. He assumed the totality of what it is to be human: mind, flesh and body, spirit and soul and heart.

On this Feast of Christ’s Ascension, by this unification of mankind to God in Paradise from which we previously fell, opposites are united and borders are shattered. The Lord Ascended from whence He came; originally being immaterial, He descended and took on matter and flesh from the Most Holy Theotokos at the Annunciation. And yet now, the tasks of Christ are complete. On Ascension, Christ completes the circle of His Bodily presence in the World. Mankind’s Salvation is accomplished through the spotless Incarnation and the Honorable Passion, Crucifixion, Burial and Descent into Hades, and Resurrection. St. Leo the Great, Pope of Rome wrote: Christs Ascension is our uplifting, and the hope of the Body is raised. The Ascension is our uplifting, for Christ having placed man over His shoulders, raised our fallen nature to the God Father. The Ascension is our hope. We also hope to ascend on the last day, Resurrected and Glorified, to be with Christ reigning in glory. The Ascension is the purpose of Christian existence. Christians act and live by the hope obtained via Christ’s Bodily Ascension. This is the hope that you receive when you look into the starry sky on a clear night. Man prides himself on his own ascensions, on space exploration, and in the 1960’s, on the first moon landing. Yet, how these things pale in comparison to the Lord’s Ascension, wherein verily Christ made a path from earth to heaven for each soul, for everyone who seeks Him with zeal and sincerity! This is what you should call to memory each night as you look heavenwards; that Christ made a path for you there, and that in your time, for as long as He keeps you in the world, you have but to live the Holy Gospel in obedience to the Holy Orthodox Faith.

If you do so, you will also Ascend. You will ascend in virtue and sanctity. Perhaps you will not ascend in earthly power, or wealth or glory. These are all tokens of this fallen world which exist and then cease to exist. And as for man his days are as the grass, as the flower of the field so shall he blossom forth. The wind shall pass over it, and no longer will it know the place thereof. We have a limit, an expiry date. Christ showed us a different way; a way of the heart wherein man ascends to God and is united to Him by love and sincerity. This is the love and sincerity which we have towards those weaker than us whom we are called to defend. The love we show them and the sacrifices we make on their behalf—these are the heavenly qualities, which are not-of-this-world. They are not of this world for their origin is in God, and we receive them ever so gently as part of our DNA one could say, for we are His children. He is our Father and every virtuous act of our lives can only be ascribed to the grace He provides.

With Christ’s Ascension, a heavenly calling has been issued for each one individually, and for the Church collectively. I speak here not of the Church in an institutional sense on the diocesan or parish level. Here, I speak of the Church—the Only Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church confessed in the Creed as manifest in Holy Orthodoxy, as she exists in this Age, subsiding within the diocesan and parish level. Christ is leading the Church invisibly and He, like a good vinedresser, is pruning Her. Every branch which bears no fruit, He will cut it off and throw it into the fire, as He Himself testified. St. Innocent of Kherson, within his homily on the saving Feast of the Ascension taught: Whoever truly believes in his heavenly calling cannot be earthly. In all the circumstances of his life, the true Christian remembers that he is an heir to Heaven, the co-inheritor of Christ, and he acts in accordance with his calling. Logically, we are called to action and vigilance in our thoughts and deeds, but also in our sacramental life—the sacramental life Christ entrusted to the Holy Apostles at the Ascension. That is, we must be cautious in how we live the Liturgy and how we approach Holy Communion. Do we approach with sincerity of Faith and Love, as we mystically are enveloped by the Communion of the Lord’s Body and Blood which enables us to live a minor Ascension in this earthly context and reality?

At His Ascension Christ made a promise: He promised that the Holy Spirit will descend upon the Apostles not many days from now. This is the Feast of Pentecost (which we will discuss extensively at the appropriate time). The Troparion of Ascension speaks of this: Thou didst make glad the disciples with the promise of the Holy Spirit. They were confirmed by the blessing that Thou art the Son of God, the Savior of the World. The Feast of the Ascension, therefore, is also a confirmation that, as Christ’s Church, we are in the period of toil and acquisition. This period began on Ascension and it will finish at the end of the Age, when Christ shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. This is a period of toil; it is recounted as one continuous day wherein we labor to do the works of God. As Christ told the disciples at Jacob’s Well: One labors while it is still day, night is coming wherein no man can work. The night mentioned here is the spiritual night which will overtake mankind at the end of the Age before Christ’s Glorious Second Coming. And according to our stance during these dark times, so will we be judged. We labor for the glory of Christ and the glory of His Church, and we labor because we wish to speak to anyone willing to listen to the Gospel of Christ, which is expressed only in the Truth of Holy Orthodoxy. – Ortho Christian 

Christ ascended into heaven in His human but transformed body. By this act, He united humanity to God forever. The icon of Christ’s Ascension contains such beauty, each part having meaning. Christ incarnated and took on human flesh. His Ascension is the culmination of that act. He returned with glory to sit at the Right Hand of the Father. This is an anticipation of what will happen to us, our own return to heaven.

Ascension Icon

~ Icon image credit, via Creative Commons 2.0 is attributed to Fr. Ted

In the icon Christ is depicted with His wounds and scars intact, the holes in His hands and the cut from the spear in His side, just as He appeared following His Resurrection. And then, forty days after His Resurrection, He ascended into Heaven, returning to His Father. This icon is based the Book of Acts, but includes much more meaning than at first meets the eye.

Though Christ’s Ascension was described as simply “disappearing” behind a cloud, in the icon He is shown in beautiful colored robes, in glory surrounded by a golden circle of light. He is flanked by angels and His mother Mary, the Holy Theotokos is right at the center of the icon. The appearance of Christ in this icon, is very similar to His appearance in the Second Coming icon of the Last Judgment. The reason for this similarity is because of the words the angels said to the apostles on the day of Ascension:

Portrayal of the Ascension from a 12th century manuscript

“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.”Acts 1:11. 

In the icon, the apostles appear confused, they do not fully understand what is happening, and what the angels mean. The Holy Theotokos, Mary is in prayer, and she is most likely pondering these things in her heart. This icon is also symbolizing the early church herself, notably we see Paul there, although this event occurred before his conversion. The apostles do not yet have halos, as have Mary, Christ and the angels. It is not until Pentecost that the apostles will get their halos.

There is so much more meaning contained within the icons, but that is just an example. The icons have layers of meaning; each time you pull one layer back, you find another.

From the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (GOARCH):

The Feast itself commemorates when, on the fortieth day after His Resurrection, 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 the Holy Spirit, He ascended into heaven.

The story of the Ascension of our Lord, celebrated as one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church, is found in the book of the Acts of the Apostles 1:3-11. It is also mentioned in the Gospels of Mark (16:19) and Luke (24:50-53). The moment of the Ascension is told in one sentence: ‘He was lifted up before their eyes in a cloud which took Him from their sight’ (Acts 1:9).

Christ made His last appearance on earth, forty 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 stated, ‘You shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now’ (Acts 1:5).

After Jesus gave these instructions, He led the disciples to the Mount of Olives. Here, He commissioned them to be His witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). It is also at this time that the disciples were directed by Christ to ‘go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 28:19). Jesus also told them that He would be with them always, ‘even to the end of the world’ (Matthew 28:20).

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, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as you have seen Him going into heaven’ (Acts 1:11). – GOARCH

Christ said to the apostles, “I am with you and no one is against you.”

Father Thomas Hopko presents a theological description of the ascension in his Volume One on Dogmatics. He writes in the Symbol of Faith about the Ascension:

After His resurrection from the dead Jesus appeared to men for a period of forty days after which He ‘was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God’ (Mk 16.19; see also Lk 24.50 and Acts 1.9–11).

The ascension of Jesus Christ is the final act of His earthly mission of salvation. The Son of God comes ‘down from heaven’ to do the work which the Father gives Him to do; and having accomplished all things, He returns to the Father bearing for all eternity the wounded and glorified humanity which He has assumed (see e.g. Jn 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.

We have seen already that ‘the heavens’ is the symbolical expression in the Bible for the uncreated, immaterial, divine ‘realm of God’ as one saint of the Church has called it. To say that Jesus is ‘exalted at the right hand of God’ as Saint Peter preached in the first Christian sermon (Acts 2.33) means exactly this: that 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 (see Eph 1–2).

Man was created with the potential to be a ‘partaker of the divine nature,’ to refer to the Apostle Peter once more (2 Pet 1.4). It is this participation in divinity, called theosis (which literally means deification or divinization) in Orthodox theology, that the ascension of Christ has fulfilled for humanity. The symbolical expression of the ‘sitting at the right hand’ of God means nothing other than this. It does not mean that somewhere in the created universe the physical Jesus is sitting in a material throne.

The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of Christ’s ascension in terms of the Jerusalem Temple. Just as the high priests of Israel entered the ‘holy of holies’ to offer sacrifice to God on behalf of themselves and the people, so Christ the one, eternal and perfect High Priest offers Himself on the cross to God as the one eternal, and perfect, Sacrifice, not for Himself but for all sinful men. As a man, Christ enters (once and for all) into the one eternal and perfect Holy of Holies: the very ‘Presence of God in the heavens.’

Thus, the ascension of Christ is seen as man’s first entry into that divine glorification for which He was originally created. The entry is made possible by the exaltation of the divine Son who emptied Himself in human flesh in perfect self-offering to God. – Fr. Thomas Hopko

Jesus was freely carrying out the work of the Father, on behalf of all sinful humanity, completing it with His sacrifice. Christ carried up our sinful and poor human nature into heaven. This makes it also our ascension and glorification, since we are united to Christ himself through our Holy Baptism. Where once we were blind, now we have “eyes to see” through the eyes of  faith, according to Saint Paul.

Fr. Philip LeMasters has written a Homily on the Feast of the Ascension:

Sometimes we are all set our sights too low, expecting too little of ourselves and others.  When we do so, we sell ourselves short and do a disservice not only to ourselves but to everyone around us.  When we aim low, we can’t expect to achieve high goals.  The season of the Ascension is a powerful antidote to such low expectations, for it reveals the great glory and dignity that Jesus Christ has given us.  Through His Ascension, we are raised with Him literally to the heights of the heavenly Kingdom.

Forty days after His resurrection, our Lord ascended into heaven.   In Him, humanity and divinity are united in one Person; He goes up into heaven as the God-Man.   The Son shares in the glory that He had with the Father and the Holy Spirit before the creation of the world.  And He brings our humanity into that glory with Him.  There is perhaps no more powerful sign of our salvation than the Ascension, for it makes clear that our Lord has raised us—not only from the tomb, not only from hades—but into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  We truly become participants in God, partakers of the divine nature by grace, in our ascended Lord.
            And we are reminded by the Ascension that Jesus Christ is not merely a great teacher or example or even an angel or lesser god.  As the Fathers of the Council of Nicaea proclaimed, He is light of light, very God of very God, of one essence with the Father, the only begotten Son of God.   For only One who is truly divine and eternal can ascend into heaven and bring us into the divine, eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  That is why the Council of Nicaea rejected the teaching of Arius, who did not think that the Son was fully divine.   That is why the Orthodox Church has always disagreed with those who deny our Lord’s full divinity or His full humanity.  For only One who is truly both God and human can bring humans into the life of God.
            Unfortunately, some have set their sights too low in how they view Jesus Christ and themselves.  If we want a Savior who merely teaches and models a good life or advances a political agenda, we might become a bit more moral by listening to Him.  But human teachers and examples cannot conquer death and cannot raise us with them into eternal life.  There apparently always have been, and continue to be, those who want a Lord in their own image:  a teacher of secret spiritual truths to a select few; a social or political activist of whatever ideology; or a rabbi or philosopher who speaks with wisdom.  Movies, documentaries, and books come out all the time with the claim to have discovered a true or secret Jesus who is different from the Lord portrayed in Scripture and confessed in the Church. 
            But countless martyrs, including Jesus Christ’s disciples, did not go to their deaths out of loyalty to a mere human teacher.  They looked death in the eye and did not blink because they knew that their Lord was God, that He had conquered death and would share His victory with them in heaven.  In a matter of days, Christ’s disciples went from total despair and defeat at His crucifixion to the astounding joy of Pascha and Pentecost.  These were life-changing experiences that gave them the strength to sacrifice their own lives for the Lord.  Teachers and good examples die and are ultimately forgotten; generations of martyrs do not give their lives for them.  But the life of the risen and ascended Son of God continues in the Church, especially in the witness of the martyrs who share in a victory that is not of this world. – Fr. LeMasters
Fr. Le Masters reminds us that there have been countless martyrs that came before us, who went all the way to their deaths for Christ. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and it is up to us to live up to that calling and truly live as Christ did. We should be living with the dignity of all made in God’s image. We all fall short of the glory of God, but if we repent for our sins and remember that we are representatives of the Holy Eternal One, who has conquered death itself, we can set a good example for others.

Ascension Icon

“Christ has Ascended. From Earth to Heaven!” 

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