Ascension of Our Lord
Today we celebrate one of the twelve great feasts of the Church, the Ascension of our Lord. This feast, unlike immovable holidays, is directly related to Pascha and Pentecost. Ascension crowns the celebration of Pascha and prepares us to receive the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.
All this time, from Pascha to Pentecost, listening to the words of the Gospel and of church hymns, we as if again and again recall and relive the joy which encompassed the holy apostles. Forty days from Pascha to Ascension they rejoiced in communion with the risen Savior (Acts 1:3): He came to them (Luke 24:36), stayed with them, ate with them (Luke 24:43), taught them and explained scriptures to them (Luke 24:45). We also, keeping our paschal joy like the flame of a small candle, feel the Savior’s presence, commune with Him in the sacrament of the Eucharist, listen to the holy scriptures and teachings.
On the very day of Ascension, the Savior led His disciples to the Mount of Olives. Again we relive all the events connected with this marvelous place: it is here that Christ taught His apostles (Matthew 24:3); it is here that He visited Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38); it is here that He raised their brother Lazarus from the dead (John 11:43); here, descending to Jerusalem with the singing of “Hosanna” and “Blessed is he who comes” (Luke 19:38), Christ wept for the Holy City (Luke 19:41-44). At the foot of the Mount of Olives Christ and His disciples passed by the garden of Gethsemane, where on the stones there will always remain the stains from “His sweat” which “was like drops of blood” (Luke 22:44), and where He was betrayed by Judas only a month and a half ago (Mark 14:43); they walked passed the place where Protomartyr Stephen was soon to be killed. The significance of this mountain for Christians was so great that it is here that the Theotokos willed for her most pure body to be buried (from Dormition Matins). And now in this holy place, on top of this holy mountain Christ parted with His disciples.
The Gospel’s retelling of the Ascension is quite laconic. Christ said to the apostles His last words of comfort and hope (Luke 24:49); then, having walked to the top of the Mount of Olives, He blessed them and went away as if ascending into heaven. Why do I say “as if ascending”? Because the Savior did not fly away to the Moon, but entered into the glory of His Father; He did not leave the world, abandoning us, but is here, among us (Matthew 18:20) always to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20). But it is said “ascended into heavens” (Luke 24:51) because Christ went the way in which every one of us will go at death. He opened for people the way to God, having sat at the right hand of the Father in His human Body (Mark 16:19).
The evangelists and, after them, the whole Church invariably underlines the humanity of Christ: it was not a spirit who ascended, not a ghost, not a mirage, but God in human nature. “Look at My hands and My feet,” says Christ. “It is I Myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have” (Luke 24:39). “Give Me food,”—“and He took it and ate it in their presence,” says Saint Luke (Luke 24:43). In the same way, the Holy Church sings, especially emphasizing that Christ ascended in His Body:
Beholding Christ, the Mediator between God and men, with His flesh in the heights, the choirs of the angels were amazed, and with one accord they sang a hymn of victory.
Perceiving Thy strange ascent, O Saviour, the leaders of the angels were bewildered, and spake one to another: What sight is this! He that is seen is endowed with the likeness of mankind’s form, yet as the incarnate God doth He now ascend far above the bounds of heaven’s heights.
As they beheld Thee ascending in body from Olivet, O Word of God, the blessed Galileans heard angels crying to them: Why do ye stand thus and gaze? For in this very flesh and form He shall return once again upon the last day in like manner as ye see Him now.
Why is this? Why is it so important that the Savior ascended in His Body? Perhaps, it is because Christ came to raise not just part of a person, not the soul only or the spirit, but “healing the whole man” (John 7:23), “to raise the fallen image of Adam” (from the service of Ascension). Christianity insists that our body is not a craft of an evil demiurge, not a cage for the soul, like the occultists repeat after Plato, but a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), and must be restored, cleansed, and sanctified.
It is also, perhaps, important for us that Christ ascended in His Body, that in this we see the invariable humanity of God. Having once become incarnate, the Savior always remains human, forever “uniting things on earth with the heavens” (from the Kontakion of Ascension), and He took His humanity up to the right hand of the Father. Through His Body He opened to us the way home, and we in the Body of the Savior will be taken up to the Father. Is this, perhaps, the reason why Christians partake of Holy Communion with such awe, uniting with the Body and Blood of Christ, that in Him alone is our salvation, that in Him alone we rise from the dead, “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28)?
Finally, the ascension of the Lord in the flesh means that His Body, the Holy Church (Ephesians 1:23) is not a ghost, nor an abstract concept, not a hobby club, but a living and whole body. It is not enough, therefore, to just think about the Church, to sympathize with Christianity, to like it. It is not enough to know about the Church or to stop by now and again. One must be in the Church, live in her, live by the Body and Blood of the Savior.
Only in the Body of Christ does the resurrection of the Savior become our resurrection, the ascension—our ascension, the heavenly Father—our Father, and the eternal life with God—our life. Let us not spin cobwebs in our minds, thinking that missing church services, abstaining from confession and Holy Communion for years, not living according to the commandments of Christ, we somehow remain invisible members of an “invisible Church,” some sort of “secret agents.” No, brothers and sisters! Christ ascended not in virtual reality, but in His Body; and our salvation is not in fruitless fantasies, but in the Church. St. Cyprian of Carthage said: “He who does not obey the Church is not her son; and to whom the Church is not the mother, God is not the father” (On the Unity of the Church).
Let us reconcile and reunite with the Holy Church through repentance, unite with the Body of Christ through communion, become grounded in the commandments of Christ, and keep to the truth despite all tenets of the devil, because Christ is with us, “departing not hence, but remaining inseparable from us and crying unto them that love [Him]: I am with you, and no one can be against you” (from the Kontakion of Ascension).