The feast of Christ’s Ascension represents one of the most important liturgical moments of the Christian year. It is, unfortunately, generally under-appreciated. Due to where it falls in the cycle of feasts, it is sometimes seen as a sort of epilogue to Pascha. In our modern life, it falls in the summer which has become a time for vacations, time off from work and school and even sometimes church. It falls in mid-week, which in the modern working world makes its participation more difficult for many people. For ancient people, however, the feast of the Ascension of Christ would have been intuitively the most important. The Ascension represents the culmination of the gospel which was proclaimed throughout the world by the apostles.
Key to understanding the importance of Christ’s Ascension is the understanding that this does not represent merely Christ flying into the sky or going away. Before the Ascension, Christ promises the exact opposite (Matt 28:20). While St. John’s Gospel uses the language of departing and going away, it is in the context of the coming of the Holy Spirit which will bring the apostles to know Christ and the Father even more intimately (cf. John 16:7ff). Rather, Christ’s Ascension is the feast of his enthronement in the heavens. As we will see, the basis of worship, of ritual, of proclamation, of sacred architecture, of iconography, and of sacrificial piety in the ancient world was the enthronement of God. This was true in ancient Judaism surrounding the temple and it was equally true in early Christianity.
Ancient Near Eastern myth followed a similar paradigm regardless of culture with strands of these ideas found in Egyptian and early Greek myth as well. The central story or epic cycle involved a divine rebellion against a previous most high god which represented the forces of chaos and death in the world. In this struggle, often as an accidental byproduct rather than a deliberate act, the world and humanity are created. Following a victory in this struggle, the winner, still conceived as the son of a divine father, was enthroned in a newly created palace temple generally within a garden and/or atop a mountain. This structure can be seen in the case of Baal, Marduk, Zeus, and many others. Individual temples are instantiations of that primary dwelling of the god. Within the worship of those pagan temples, the architecture and iconography were designed to retell this story. The story was told and sung directly. The story was reenacted and participated in by worshippers through ritual. The sacrificial meals were a victory feast, a celebration at the enthronement of the god as king of that city or empire.
Genesis 1-3 tells a parallel story regarding Yahweh the God of Israel, but with important corrections regarding his identity and the creation of the world. The first and most obvious is that while a rebellion is described in Genesis 3, it is not Yahweh rebelling against a previous god, but rather a failed attempt by a subordinate to rebel against Yahweh. All of the other elements, including those representing chaos (i.e. the waters) obey the commands of the God of Israel immediately and perfectly. Even in the case of the rebellion of Genesis 3, the devil is simply thrown down to the realm of the dead by a divine command with no struggle or battle necessary. While the imagery of Yahweh battling the monstrous forces of chaos is poetically referenced in the Old Testament (as in Psalm 74 and Isaiah 27 as but two examples), it is notably absent from Genesis 1-3. Genesis 1 describes Yahweh constructing the entire creation as his temple palace in which he will reign as king. The “resting” of the seventh day is Yahweh’s taking his throne to rule over the entirety of his created order. The final stage of the construction of an ancient temple was the placing of the image of the god within it. This is corrected in the description of the formation of human persons and their placement within the temple elaborated in Genesis 2 to serve as Yahweh’s image.
The tabernacle and the temple, then, were constructed as images of Paradise in particular, and the entire creation of which it is a microcosm. The structures, the iconography, and the worship of tabernacle and temple were constructed around telling this story of the enthronement of Yahweh over all creation. The central element of the inner temple was the two massive cherubim (over 15 feet high) who represented the throne of Yahweh. The story of Yahweh’s creation of all things in heaven and on earth and rule over them was retold through the worshippers’ surroundings, through psalms and hymns, through the direct telling of the story, and through ritual recreation and participation. This proclamation was against the reality that human and angelic rebellions against Yahweh, though futile, were still ongoing within the God of Israel’s creation (Ps 2). This proclamation ended with the prophetic promise that Yahweh would return to his creation in a new act to put an end to these rebellions and reestablish justice and peace.
Daniel 7 prophetically describes the solution that will come to these rebellions. Daniel saw in his visions terrifying embodiments of these spiritual and human rebellions against Yahweh and his rule. In describing their final end, Daniel 7 directly utilizes the imagery of the enthronement of Baal by his father El while again correcting it. In Daniel’s vision, Yahweh remains enthroned over all creation as the Most High God. Another figure is portrayed who is also Yahweh but appears as a human. This second hypostasis of Yahweh, the divine Son, is victorious over the rebellious powers and is enthroned with dominion over all of the creation given by his Father. Another cycle of victory and enthronement will take place through the person of God the Son.
The apostles repurposed the Greek word translated as gospel (evangelion) to make this understanding clear. In its extra-Biblical use, this word occurs almost entirely in the plural (evangelia). This term referred to the proclamation of the victories of a Roman general or emperor prior to his arrival at a city. The ‘gospel of God’ or the ‘gospel of Jesus Christ,’ then, is the recounting and proclamation of the story of Christ’s victory over the powers of sin, death, and Hades culminating in his enthronement over the entirety of the creation. St. Matthew’s Gospel ends with Christ being invested with all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt 28:18). The longer ending added to St. Mark’s Gospel ends with the proclamation of the gospel to all of the creation (Mark 16:15) and his subsequent enthronement (v. 19). Christ sits at the right hand of the Father because he is not a rebellious son who overthrows his father to seize power like the pagan gods. Rather, he is an obedient son who receives dominion from the Father as glorification for his victory (Phil 2:5-11). St. Luke’s Gospel concludes with Christ’s ascent into heaven (Luke 24:50-53). The Acts of the Apostles begins in the same place, adding the detail that Christ is taken to heaven on a cloud, directly connecting this event to the enthronement in Daniel 7 (Acts 1:9).
The apostolic proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ sees his ascension and enthronement as the climax of his victory (Acts 2:33-36, 5:31; 1 Cor 15:24-28; Eph 1:20-23). Church temples are constructed and adorned with iconography to retell the story of this victory before that place where Christ sits enthroned with the altar as his footstool. The story of this victory is retold through hymns, the reading of scripture, and direct proclamation. This victory is celebrated and participated in through ritual and the sacrifice of the Eucharist. Through the life of the church, the proclamation of the gospel, culminating in Christ’s ascension and enthronement is made to the entire world in preparation for that day on which the same Christ appears to judge the living and the dead establishing justice for eternity in a renewed and transfigured creation.