Readings: Luke 24:46-52; Acts 1:1-12; Isaiah 2:2-3; Isaiah 62:10-63:9; Zechariah 14:1-11.
The Ascension is, among those who call themselves Christians, a relatively neglected Feast, except among who those hold to the ancient liturgies. No doubt the event itself is problematic for the contemporary imagination, as C. S. Lewis pointed out half a century ago—skeptics scoff at the prospect of a three-story universe, and the bizarre picture (for those of the twenty-first century) of Jesus floating up and being seated in a decorated chair. Yet, the event in Jesus’ life, and its significance for our salvation are everywhere present in the Scriptures. In the New Testament, there are two full narratives devoted to it, one at the end of Luke, to complete the story of Jesus, and the other at the beginning of Acts, to introduce the story of the Church. The story is told briefly in the longer version of Mark, assumed in Matthew, and referred to, though not narrated, throughout John. By means of the Ascension, we know that Jesus is truly the Lord, for he has not only won the victory over death, but has taken his rightful place with the Father, and done this, astonishingly, by raising our human nature with him! By means of the Ascension, Pentecost, the gift of the Holy Spirit, was made possible: he ascended on high, and gave gifts to us (Eph 4:8)!
Besides its firm place as an event that changed history, the Ascension of our Lord has both present AND future implications for US and for this world. Since the Son has assumed our human nature, it is no mere pious fantasy to believe that we are presently “seated in heavenly places” (Eph 2:6). Thus, we are enjoined, “Set your mind on things above” (Col 3:3). Some very thoughtful Christians scholars, notably Douglas Farrow of McGill University (a Catholic), and N. T. Wright (an Anglican), have insisted that we should see the Ascension as something particular to the Lord Jesus himself. It is, they assert, the event that establishes his kingship over the earth, the culmination of his own unique history. Thus, we should not move too quickly to merge his victory with human mystical ascent or with claims concerning the authority of the Church. They have, that is, expressed concern about a facile coopting of the Ascension as a means of seizing power, so that, by grasp the ascension for ourselves, we seek violently or irreverently to “bring down Christ” (Rom. 10:6) by an appeal to spiritual prowess or by means of institutional claims. There are certainly cases where individuals or ecclesial institutions have blurred the distinction between Christ and themselves, by appealing to the Spirit. Attention to the Old Testament readings appointed for the feast is of help here, keeping things in balance.
Isaiah 2:2-3 reads, “In the last days the mountain of the Lord and the house of God shall be prepared (or established) on the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall travel, and say: Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob, and he will teach us his ways, and we will walk in his paths.” In this prophetic word, we are given a picture of all the nations surging up to the top of the holy mountain, because God’s house has been established on the top of it. The common place for a theophany, a showing forth of God, has now become the local of God’s house, God’s people, who are joined by many who want to learn his ways.
This prophetic vision corresponds to the call to “seek the face of the God of Jacob” so that we might “ascend the hill of the Lord” and stand with feet in his holy place (Psalm 23:3-4). Such a yearning to go where Jesus has gone before, up to the heights, is appropriate and not arrogant. After all, a new ladder has been given—the Son of Man, who by his ascension, has “taken upon [his] shoulders our nature, which had gone astray… and bring[s] it unto God the Father” (Matins) canon for the Ascension, Ode 7.) Or, consider these words from St. John Chrysostom’s sermon on the Ascension:
And of these good things, this very day is the foundation. Receiving, as it were, the first fruits of our nature, he bore it up in this way to the Master. And indeed just as it happens in the case of plains that bear ears of corn, it happens here. Somebody takes a few ears, and making a little handful, offers it to God, so that because of the little amount, he blesses the whole land. Christ also did this: through that one flesh and “first-fruits” he made to be blessed our [whole] race… Therefore he offered up the first-fruits of our nature to the Father, and the Father was so amazed with the offering, both because of the worthiness of the One who offered and because of the blamelessness of the offering, that he received the gift with his hands that belonged, as it were, to the same household as the Son. And he placed the Offering close to himself, saying, ‘Sit at my right hand!’ (S in Ascensionem D.N.J.C., Migne 50.446, original translation.)
Our ascent, and the ascent of all redeemed humanity is made possible only because of the victory of Christ, who has gone to prepare a place for us. When and how does our ascent take place? It takes place in our lives by ascesis, by learning the ways of the Lord and walking in his paths, by carrying of the cross alongside Christ, as each of us plays Simon of Cyrene to the One who alone can bear this burden for us.
It also takes place in prayer and in worship, as (to use the words of Cyril of Jerusalem) we bring to the presence of God “heaven, earth, oceans, sun, moon and the entire creation” (Lecture 23, On the Mysteries V, On the Sacred Liturgy and Communion, 6). This is not an ascent that leaves behind the world or that hopes to escape it; instead, we offer all up to the Creator and Redeemer of all. (This is impressed upon me every time we worship in the Orthodox tradition, during the Great Entrance and the prayers of the priest at the anaphora, where we “lift up our hearts”). We do all this because Christ alone has “trod the winepress” (as another appointed reading reminds us, Isaiah 62:10-63:9), and so has come, bringing his reward with him, and seeking us, the redeemed of the Lord. He has “carried us” and “lifted us up” and “bestowed good things” upon us.
How is Jesus’ ascension a pattern for us? Jesus’ ascension THOROUGHLY transforms what would have been merely a fall and restoration (a V-shape story) into a story of mending-plus-glory (a story with check-mark contours). The ascension shows that all of what we are has been assumed, taken up, into Christ. Thus it is not our bare redemption, but our entire hallowing and exaltation, that God has in mind. Now, in prayer and worship, we ascend in mind and spirit to where we are, by virtue of our union with Christ, already seated: and as we make this ascent, together and enabled by the Spirit, even our bodies and this world are not left unchanged. As the Western Pascha Hymn puts it, “Soar we now where Christ has led, following our exalted head.” Now, in worship! In our reading of the Word, and especially in our partaking of the Eucharistic mysteries, we are caught up into the heavenly places—not so as to escape the world, but to present it before Risen Slaughtered Lamb who can unseal the scroll. Because of Jesus’ victory, that day of which Zechariah spoke has come: his feet stood upon the mount of Olives, and the Lord has become “King over the whole earth” (Zech. 14:1-11).
There is a present aspect to our ascent. Is there a future one, as well? Some in North America have derived from a single verse (1 Thess 4:16) the odious doctrine of a rapture, whereby we may well forget the importance of our resurrected bodies on a newly created earth, and think that our destiny is to be bodiless in heaven with the angels. In fact, the whole of the tradition insists that God is not finished with this world and that we will have Spirit-animated bodies. So that verse about the rapture cannot mean what some think it does. Instead, it envisions the time when Jesus will return, and we shall rush to greet Jesus as he returns to judge and to remake his world, completing it as the new creation! But does nothing happen to us when, on that day, we greet our beloved? In St. James’ liturgy, and in the Western hymn based upon it, we stand in awe: “Let all mortal flesh keep silence.” What are we in awe about? Why, we remember the angels rank on rank who formed an honour-party and watched the Light of lights descend to us, to the human realm, and as he comes to us again and again in the Eucharistic gifts. Is our “ascent” pictured by Paul in 1 Thessalonians ONLY this kind of action, picturing a human vanguard to honour Jesus’ return, a human party to match that of the angels who watched his Incarnation? No, I think St. Paul is envisaging MORE than a human welcome here, though no doubt we will escort our Lord as he returns to fulfill all things. This picture of the ascent of Christians to greet Christ is also a fulfillment of our destiny, a picture of our own glorification! It is, it seems, a bodily answer to the longing of our souls, minds and spirits to “enter into his kingdom,” that is, “to rule with Him.” (Think about the ascending of the thrones of the Pevensie children as they are crowned on Cair Paravel!)
There may be some confused Christians who need to be reminded that the Church is not identical with the Holy Spirit, and that Jesus’ ascension sets him apart from us in glory and honor. More of us, I think, need assurance that Jesus is present with us in the Eucharist and in the proclamation of the Word. In worship, we are not simply practicing, but being taken up into all this, into the victory of our Christ our God. The Ascension sets our imagination on heavenly things, and fixes our wills upon the One who will show us, while we wait for his final return, what he has for us to do, not separately, but together with the Church in every time and place. In his Church, every member points, though some more luminously than others, to the One who is the only God-Man. Our ascent in the Liturgy, putting aside all earthly care, as we bring those we love before God, works that transformation in us at the present time. But that is not all. In the end, we are told, God intends to unite earth to heaven, removing every curse (Zech 14:11; Rev 22:3), so that the Holy Trinity is ever-present with us in fulness. So shall we ever be with the Lord.