Feast of the Ascension

“HE HAS SPOKEN BLASPHEMY! … What do you think?” the high priest asked the assembled Sanhedrin. And they answered, “He is deserving of death.” Thus the Lord Jesus was condemned (see Matthew 26:59-67). But in what had He supposedly blasphemed?

The Gospel records it this way, “The high priest answered and said to [Jesus], ‘I put You under oath by the living God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!’  Jesus said to him, ‘It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven’” (Matthew 26:62-64).

That Christ is exalted “at the right hand” of the Father was part of the earliest preaching of the apostles. When Peter was summoned to the same Sanhedrin that has condemned Jesus, he proclaimed, “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree. Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:30-31). This was the same witness which condemned the Protomartyr Stephen to death for saying, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:55) Little wonder, then, that this image found its way into the fundamental creeds of the Church, repeated by Christians the world over each day.

The apostles and others who spoke of God’s “right hand” knew they were using a metaphor, an anthropomorphism (giving a human feature, in this case a “right hand,” to God). To sit at the right hand of an earthly king was the place of power and honor. The one who held that place acted in the name of the king and was entitled to the same respect as the king. To say that Jesus sits at the “right hand” of the Father clearly places Him as equal in glory to the Father Himself.

Ascension and Enthronement

The Great Feast of Christ’s Holy Ascension on the fortieth day after Pascha is actually a two-fold observance. First of all it commemorates His ascension proper, as observed by the apostles and recorded in the Scriptures: “And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. Now it came to pass, while He blessed them, that He was parted from them and carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:50-51).

The feast also observes what was unseen: Christ enthroned at the Father’s right hand. The two aspects of the mystery are invariably paired in the hymns of the feast: “You were taken up in glory from the Mount of Olives, Christ our God, in the presence of Your disciples, and took Your seat at the Father’s right hand, filling the universe with Your Godhead…” (apostikhon at vespers).

Our celebration further distinguishes another aspect of the mystery. On the one hand the eternal Word of God has always been at the Father’s right hand with the Holy Spirit in the Godhead. And so we fittingly pray: “Jesus the Giver of life, taking those He loved, ascended the Mount of Olives and blessed them and, riding on a cloud, He came to the Father’s bosom, which He had never left” (from the canon at orthros).

The Word of God, incarnate in the Virgin’s womb, was at the same time with the Father in His divinity. This is also expressed in this familiar troparion from the Divine Liturgy: “Being God You were present in the tomb by Your body and yet in Hades by Your soul, in Paradise with the thief, and on the throne, O Christ, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, filling all things but encompassed by none.”

With the incarnation, Christ is now the God-become-man who brings His deified human nature to the glory of the Father. He does not return to the Father as the pre-incarnate Word but with the human nature which He had assumed, now risen and transformed:

“When You came down from heaven to things on earth and as God raised up with You Adam’s nature which lay below in Hades’ prison, You brought it to heaven at Your ascension, O Christ, and made it sit with You on Your Father’s throne, as You are merciful and love mankind” (kathisma at orthros).

“Christ, the Giver of life, who rose in His two natures with glory to heaven and is now seated with the Father, you priests praise, you people highly exalt to all the ages” (from the canon at orthros).

“Our nature, which of old had fallen, has been raised above the Angels and beyond understanding established on God’s throne. Come, let us keep festival and let us cry out, ‘You His works, praise the Lord, and highly exalt Him to all the ages’ (from the canon at orthros).

“The majesty of Him who became poor in the flesh has been raised above the heavens and our fallen nature honored by sitting with the Father. Let us keep festival and all cry aloud with one accord, and gladly clap our hands” (from the canon at orthros).

Humanity Glorified

The Word of God, truly incarnate in Jesus the Son of Mary, is inseparably joined to our humanity. As such He has enthroned our human nature at the Father’s right hand.

This new and unique reality is expressed in the icon of the feast. The throne of the eternal Trinity is often depicted as three concentric circles. In the midst of them, upborne by angels, is Christ in His humanity. It is this detail from the ascension icon which we find in the dome of our churches as the Pantokrator, the Almighty One, the Head of His Body which is the Church.

The feast of Christ’s Ascension, then, is also the glorification of our human nature and the seal of Christ’s ministry on earth. As the Fathers expressed it, the Son of God became human that humans might become divine.

We Are Ascended Also

In Christ, our humanity is now seated at the Father’s right, but in a real sense He is not alone. His humanity in the heavens is but the first of many who will be glorified with Him. St Paul describes this in an agricultural image: Christ is the first of the crop; we are meant to be the rest of the crop! “Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep… For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the first-fruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming” (1 Corinthians 15:20-23).

Thus, St John Chrysostom, when speaking of the ascended Christ, uses the plural: “we have ascended.” If the “first-fruits” has ascended, the rest of the crop has as well. “We who seemed unworthy of the earth, are now raised to heaven. “We who were unworthy of earthly dominion have been raised to the Kingdom on high, have ascended higher than heaven, have come to occupy the King’s throne, and the same nature from which the angels guarded Paradise, did not stop until it ascended to the throne of the Lord.

“He ascended, and with Him our body ascended also. … Amazing! Look again, how He has raised the Church. As though He were lifting it up by some engine, He has raised it up to a vast height, and set it on that throne; for where the Head is, there is the body also. There is no interval of separation between the Head and the body; for if there were a separation, then the one would no longer be a body, nor would the other any longer be a Head.”