By A Monk of the Eastern Church
Published by SVS Press
The Wednesday which follows the fifth Sunday after Easter is the day when, in liturgical terminology, we ‘take leave’ of the Easter feast. We commemorate the last day of the physical presence of the risen Christ amongst his disciples; and to honour this presence, to honour the Resurrection once more, the church on this Wednesday repeats the service for Easter Sunday in its entirety. And now we have come to the fortieth day after Easter, the Thursday on which the Church celebrates the feast of the Ascension.
Three lessons from the Old Testament are read at vespers for the Ascension, on the Wednesday evening. The first lesson (Isa. 2:2-3) speaks of a mountain: ‘It shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains…and all nations shall flow until it…. Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord’. This alludes to the Mount of Olives, from which Jesus ascended to his Father. The second lesson (Isa. 62:10-63; 3, 7-9) was chosen because of the following words: ‘Go through, go through the gates; prepare ye the way of the people…. In his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them…’. Jesus, ascending to heaven, opens the gates to his people, he prepares a way for them, he carries them and raises them up with him. The third lesson (Zech. 14:1, 4, 8-11) also speaks of the mountain which was the scene of Jesus’s final triumph: ‘Behold the day of the Lord cometh…. And his feet shall stand in that day upon the Mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east…. And it shall be in that day, that living waters shall go out from Jerusalem.’
The chants at matins for the Ascension are already filled with allusions to the Spirit, the Comforter, whom Jesus will send. Ascension is the prelude to Pentecost.
At the liturgy, the beginning of the Book of the Acts (1:1-12) is read. Jesus, after a last meeting with His apostles, is taken up, and disappears in a cloud. The gospel for the liturgy (Luke 24:36-53) takes up the account of events from the first appearance of the risen Jesus to the assembled disciples and continues with it right up to the Ascension itself.
It is rare, if one has lived through the joy of Easter time sincerely, that one does not experience a certain constriction of the heart when the day of the Ascension comes. We know perfectly well that it is one of the very great Christian feasts, and yet, despite ourselves, it seems like a parting, a separation, and that after it, our Lord is not with us in quite the same way any longer. The disciples did not react like this. They could have been overwhelmed with grief, but, on the contrary, they ‘returned to Jerusalem with great joy’. We, too, can try and enter into this joy of the Ascension. Why does the Ascension bring joy to Christians?
First of all, the glory of our Lord must be very precious to us, and the Ascension is the crown of his earthly mission. He has accomplished on earth the whole mission which he had received from the Father. It is to the Father that his whole being reaches out. Now he will receive from the Father the welcome that his victory over sin and death—a victory gained so grievously—has merited for him. Now he will be glorified in heaven. The glory and the desire of our Lord are surely more important to us than the sort of ‘perceptible consolations’ that we might receive from his presence. Let us know how to love our Lord enough to rejoice in his own joy.
Then the Ascension marks God’s acceptance of the Son’s whole work of reparation. The Resurrection was the first dazzling sign of this acceptance, and Pentecost will be the last sign. The cloud which today envelopes Jesus and ascends with him to heaven represents the smoke of the sacrifice rising from the altar to God. The sacrifice is accepted, and the victim is admitted to God’s presence where it will continue to be offered in an eternal and heavenly manner. The work of our salvation has been accomplished and is blessed.
Jesus does not return to his Father in isolation. It was the incorporeal Logos which came down among men. But today it is the Word made flesh, both true God and true man, who enters the kingdom of heaven. Jesus brings into it the human nature which he had assumed. He opens the door of the kingdom to humanity. As if by proxy, we take possession of the benefits which are offered and made possible to us. ‘[God] hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus’. There are places destined for us in the kingdom, if we are faithful. Our presence is desired and awaited.
The Ascension makes thoughts of heaven more immediate, more actual to us. Do we think of our permanent home often enough? For most Christians, life in heaven is no more than a supplement—of which they have but a very hazy notion—to life on earth. Life in heaven is seen somewhat as a postscript, an appendix, to a book whose text is formed by earthly life. But it is the opposite which is true. Our earthly life is but the preface to the book. Life in heaven will be its main text, and this text is endless. To make use of another image, our earthly life is but a tunnel, narrow, dark—and very short—which opens onto a magnificent, sunlit landscape. We think too much of what our life now is. We do not think enough of what it will be. ‘Men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God…what he hath prepared for him that waiteth for him.’ At matins for this feast, we sing: ‘We who live in this world, let us feast like the angels…’. That is to say: let us open our minds more to the angels, and try to enter into their feelings, experiencing something of what they experience when the Son returns to the Father; let us go ahead in spirit and be near the Blessed Virgin Mary and the glorified saints, who will be our true co-citizens: ‘For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ’. Our lives would be transformed if, from now on, we threw our hearts over the barrier, beyond this world, into the kingdom where is found not only our own true good but also the good of those whom we love.
When the disciples had been separated from Jesus, they remained full of hope, for they knew that they were to receive the Spirit. ‘[He] commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father’. The cloud surrounds Jesus, but this cloud is coloured already by the fire of Pentecost. Jesus, in going away from us, leaves in us an attitude which is one not of regret, but rather of joyous and trustful awaiting.
Jesus’s departure has been both an act of benediction and an act of adoration, the one corresponding to the other: ‘And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy’. This is what the feast of the Ascension should be to us. If Jesus withdraws with an act of blessing, and if we adore Jesus as he withdraws (we speak figuratively), we will get up filled with new power—which comes from this adoration, this blessing—and we, like the apostles, will return ‘with great joy’.