WHEN THE EMPEROR CONSTANTINE began his program of building churches in the Holy Land, the first shrines he sponsored were at Bethlehem (Christ’s birthplace), Jerusalem (the Anastasis) and the Mount of Olives (shrine of the Ascension and a grotto believed to be where Jesus instructed His disciples). Since that day, pilgrims from all over the world regularly flock to Bethlehem and Jerusalem, but the Mount of Olives does not have anywhere near as many visitors.
The most obvious – but not the most important reason – is that the ancient shrines on the Mount of Olives were destroyed, first during the Persian invasion of ad 614. Restored, they were later demolished by the “mad caliph,” al-Hakim, in ad 1209. Rebuilt by the Crusaders, the shrine of the Holy Ascension was turned into a mosque at the time of the fall of Jerusalem to Salah ad-Din in 1188. Still a mosque, it is currently operated as a tourist site.
The Holy Ascension
Perhaps the more important reason why we ignore the Ascension today is that it is overshadowed in the historical Churches of East and West by the more prominent celebrations of Pascha, which precedes it, and Pentecost, which follows it. Christ’s Ascension, nonetheless, is of major importance for our understanding of the mystery of our salvation and of what is to come in God’s plan for us. It is a feast that expresses hope that a place has been prepared for us in the Kingdom of God alongside the risen Christ.
The Ascension marks the end of Christ’s time on earth, as recorded in the Scriptures. Matthew records the Lord’s last words – “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28: 19) – but does not describe the Ascension. In Mark’s Gospel the narrative continues: “So then, after the Lord had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs. Amen” (Mark 16:19-20).
It is the evangelist Luke who gives us the fullest picture. In his Gospel we read “‘Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem
until you are endued with power from on high.’ And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. Now it came to pass, while He blessed them, that He was parted from them” (Luke 24:49-51).
In Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, the Lord’s words of farewell are followed by the following narrative: “Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, 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, who also said, ‘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 1:9-11).
The risen Christ physically leaves this world, not by dying again, but by being “taken up” into heaven. He had not risen in order to resume the life of men on earth, and so His risen body was not limited in the way that earthly bodies are. He arose in a glorified body, immortal (never to die} and incorruptible (never to decay), for “He clothed the mortal in the splendor of incorruption” (St John Chrysostom).
This body, fully human but glorified, ascended into heaven and, as we say in the Creed, is now seated at the right hand of the Father. The Lord Jesus is exalted and glorified with His heavenly Father, as He was from all eternity, but now in His humanity, in the body incarnate from the holy Virgin Mary. As we pray in the canon at orthros:
– “O Christ, having taken upon Your shoulders our nature, which had gone astray, you ascended and brought it to God the Father” (Ode 7).
– “Having raised our nature, which was deadened by sin, You brought it to Your own Father, O Savior.”
– For the first time, a human body is glorified in the presence of the eternal God, offering our own fallen yet restored nature to Him who is the Source of all life. This is what the Protomartyr Stephen saw in his vision of the risen Lord: he “gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God,
and said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’” (Acts 7:55, 56).
And yet, Christ is also present to us, as we sing in the kondakion of this feast: “You gloriously ascended, O Christ our God, without abandoning us, but remained with us forever.” Christ had promised to abide with us, as we read in the Gospel of John: “I will not leave you orphans” (Jphn 14:18). His presence, by the power of the Holy Spirit, would be His Body, the Church.
This presence would be realized in various ways, all of which we experience in the Divine Liturgy. He is with us mystically in the Church which gathers to worship, in the Scriptures which are read, and in the Eucharist, our share in His eternal sacrifice. Again, listen to St John Chrysostom: “On high is His body, here below with us is His Spirit. And so, we have His token on high – that is, His body, which He received from us – and here below we have His Spirit with us. Heaven received the Holy Body, and the earth accepted the Holy Spirit. Christ came and sent the Spirit. He ascended, and with Him our body ascended also. … Amazing! Look again, how He has raised the Church. As though He were lifting it up by some engine, He has raised it up to a vast height, and set it on that throne; for where the Head is, there is the body also. There is no interval of separation between the Head and the body; for if there were a separation, then the one would no longer be a body, nor would the other any longer be a Head.”
We Are Ascended Also
In Christ, our humanity is now seated at the Father’s right, but in a real sense He is not alone. His humanity in the heavens is but the first of many who will be glorified with Him. St Paul describes this in an agricultural image: Christ is the first of the crop; we are meant to be the rest of the crop! “Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep…
For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the first-fruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming” (1 Corinthians 15:20-23).
Thus, St John Chrysostom, when speaking of the ascended Christ, uses the plural: “we have ascended.” If the “first-fruits” has ascended, the rest of the crop has as well. “We who seemed unworthy of the earth, are now raised to heaven. “We who were unworthy of earthly dominion have been raised to the Kingdom on high, have ascended higher than heaven, have come to occupy the King’s throne, and the same nature from which the angels guarded Paradise, did not stop until it ascended to the throne of the Lord.”
The Second, Glorious Coming
At the offering of the Divine Liturgy the priest prays “Remembering… everything that was done for our sake: the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the enthronement on the right hand, the second and glorious coming again, we offer You Your own…” In the Liturgy we celebrate the events of Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension but also something in our future: Christ’s second coming. We cannot speak of His going forth without celebrating His return.