Each year on the 40th day after the Great and Holy Feast of Pascha (Easter), the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates the Feast of the Ascension. This Feast commemorates the 40th day after Christ’s resurrection, when Jesus led His disciples to the Mount of Olives. After blessed them and asking them to wait for the fulfillment of the promise of the Holy Spirit, He ascended into heaven and took His place at the right hand of the Father.
The Ascension is one of the 12 Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church. Since the date of Pascha changes each year, likewise the date of the Ascension changes (but always falls on a Thursday).
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Scriptural accounts of the Ascension
We find the first account of the Ascension, however brief, in the Gospel of Mark (16:14-19). In this account, Jesus and the remaining eleven disciples sit at a table, in a room in or near Jerusalem. Jesus commands the disciples to spread the Gospel, and explains that those who believe and are baptized will be saved. Our Lord goes on to tell them that those who believe will be able to cast out demons, resist poison, etc.
After delivering these final words, Jesus ascends into heaven to sit at the right hand of God. St. Mark does not actually describe the Ascension itself; he simply states that it happened.
The Gospel of Luke is even more brief in its description of the Ascension (24:50-53). Jesus led the eleven to Bethany, not far from Jerusalem. And while in the act of blessing them, Jesus was carried up to heaven.
The third, and most celebrated, account of the Ascension is in the Acts of the Apostles (1:4-12). For 40 days after the Resurrection, Jesus continued to preach the Gospel. He and the eleven gathered near the Mount of Olives, northeast of Bethany. There Jesus tells his disciples that they will receive the power of the Holy Spirit and spread His message to the ends of the earth. It is also at this time that Christ directs the disciples 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). After speaking to them, Jesus is taken up in a cloud before their eyes (1:9).
Two men clothed in white then appear and ask the disciples why they were gazing into heaven. Then they tell the eleven, “This same Jesus, Who is taken up from you into Heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into Heaven” (Acts 1:11). Afterwards, the disciples return to Jerusalem rejoicing, remaining continually in the Temple.
The Ascension is, therefore, a sign and symbol of the Second Coming. When the risen Lord returns again in glory, God’s will for mankind will be fulfilled.
Icon of the Feast
The icon of the Ascension of Our Lord is a joyous icon painted with bright colors. In the top center, we see Christ ascending in His glory in a mandorla (the round blue design encasing Him). Christ blesses the assembly with His right hand. In His left is a scroll, a symbol of teaching. This communicates to us that Christ is both the source of all blessing and of all knowledge of the Church, guiding those to whom He has entrusted His work. He is the Head of the Church, its Sovereign, its source of inspiration and teaching. The Church receives its commission and ministry from Him, and fulfills it in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Notice the Theotokos in the center directly below her ascending Son, her hands raised in a calm gesture of prayer. This is quite different from the Disciples, who are moving about, talking to one another and looking and pointing towards heaven.
The entire group, the Theotokos and the disciples represent the Church. We know this because the icon of the Ascension includes some who did not witness it. St. Paul stands to the left of the Theotokos, but we know he was not present, because at that time, he did not yet believe in Christ. It was only sometime later that he became a Christian and one of the greatest Apostles and missionaries of the Church.
Importance of the Ascension
Ascension falls on the fortieth day after the Resurrection. Forty days is used symbolically in the Holy Scriptures and by the Church to indicate that an appropriate amount of time has passed for “completeness” (Gen. 7:17; Ex. 16:35, 24:18; Judges 3:11; 1 Sam. 17:16; 1 Kg 19:8; Jon 3:4; Mt 4:2).
On the Feast of the Ascension, the Orthodox Church does not merely commemorate an historical event in the life of Christ. On this day, we celebrate Christ’s final physical departure from the world and His glorification with God the Father. The Ascension shows the formal completion of His mission in this world as its Savior, the last stage in God’s plan for mankind: total union with Himself upon our departure from the world.
The glorification of Jesus refers to His Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension into heaven. When we speak of Christ’s glorified Body, we refer to Its honor, splendor, majesty and visible radiance – it gave off rays of bright light!
Father George Florovsky once said, “in the Ascension resides the meaning and the fullness of Christ’s Resurrection….and with Christ, man’s nature ascends also.” Having completed His mission in this world as the Savior, Christ returns to the Father in heaven. In ascending to the Father, He raises earth to heaven with Him and glorifies our fallen and sinful humanity by giving it a place of honor at the right hand of the Father.
It is through Christ, Who is perfect God and perfect man, that we “partake of divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). When we say that Christ is sitting at the right hand of the Father, we mean that man has been restored to communion with God because Christ gives His humanity – which He shares with us – a permanent place of honor in heaven.
We celebrate the Ascension with the same great joy the Apostles felt when they were promised that the Holy Spirit would come to bear witness to the presence of Christ in the Church. This day is joyful, not only because Christ is glorified, but also because we are glorified with Him. We are joyful because He goes to “prepare a place” for us. Because He is forever present before the Father to intercede for us!
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