Melkite Greek Catholic Church
“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 (cf. 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 authority 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 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). 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.
Ambo Prayer, Feast of the Ascension
Master, lift up our minds towards heaven as we worship Your might, and draw up our understanding from earthly cares to Yourself. For You have lifted our lowly nature in Yourself and enthroned it in the highest with the Father. Make us worthy here in this world, as in heaven, to be citizens who seek that which is on high, where You are seated on the right hand of God. We await Your glorious and fearful coming, which You revealed through the angels to the blessed Apostles, the spectators of Your Ascension into heaven. Number us with those who will be taken up into the clouds to meet You when You come to judge the world in righteousness, that with them we may be full of joy forever. By the good will and love of mankind of Your eternal Father, with Whom You are blessed and glorified together with Your all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.
IN 1831 A BAPTIST PREACHER in upstate New York began to announce that the Second Coming of Christ was to take place in 1844. By that year over 100,000 people were anticipating that what William Miller had identified as the “Blessed Hope” of Titus 2:13 would take place on October 22. When Christ did not return on that date the “Blessed Hope” became known as the “Great Disappointment.” Remnants of this group, the first Seventh Day Adventists, then said that the Last Judgment had begun in heaven on that day. The date of choice for early Jehovah’s Witnesses was 1914. When Christ didn’t visibly return, they said that He came invisibly in the spirit. Members were told that the world would end in 1920, 1925, 1957, 1975 and 1984. In 1995 the Witnesses announced that the end of the world had been postponed. California radio preacher Harold Camping claimed that the world would end in September 1994, in May, 2011 and then in October, 2011. He is not the last to make such predictions. There are still groups looking to 2012, 2016 and 2034 as their target dates. No doubt others will join the parade of false prophets before long. Conflicting prophecies are certainly nothing new. The Old Testament tells of many such disputes among the Jews, such as the struggle between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. In the first century AD, of course, the Jewish leaders considered Jesus and His followers as false prophets. From the very beginning of the Church there were rival teachers as well. As St Paul reminded the elders of the Church at Ephesus (Acts 20:28-29), there were competing evangelists going from community to community with a different take on the Gospel. Inevitably members of the local community would be led to follow them and themselves “rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:30). We would do well to reread Paul’s warning when we hear on TV or read in novels about “secret” or “newly discovered” Scriptures which “the Vatican” has suppressed. Never secret and most known since the first centuries, these writings reflect the contending religious visions among the early believers.

The “Blessed Hope”

Among the central doctrines of the Church from its earliest days has been the expected second coming of Christ. “He shall come again,” the Creeds confess, “to judge the living and the dead.” We particularly focus on this promise during the Feast of the Ascension of Christ which we are celebrating this week. The Acts of the Apostles tells of this event. Christ instructs His disciples and then is taken up out of their sight. “And while they looked steadfastly towards heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven’” (Acts 1:10-11). The promise of Christ’s return is found in almost every New Testament book. But do the Scriptures predict when this will happen? Apocalyptic books such as the Old Testament book of Daniel and the New Testament Revelation to John indicate that the events they describe “must shortly take place” (Revelation 1:1) but even these books are nowhere nearly as precise in dating what “shortly” means as some people have predicted.

Look to the Here and Now

Just before Christ’s ascension the disciples asked Him a question which He refused to answer. Expecting, as did most Jews, that the Messiah would free their nation from foreign control, the disciples “asked Him, ‘Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’” (Acts 1:6) The Lord’s response has served as the Church’s yardstick in discussing the Second Coming. “And He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority’” (Acts 1:7). We are not meant to know when God will act; we are meant to be confident that He will do so and to live accordingly. Earlier in His ministry the Lord Jesus told a parable that speaks to this issue: the story of the ten virgin attendants at a marriage feast (Matthew 25:1-13). Five came prepared with sufficient oil for their lamps; the others did not. They had to go and buy more; and as a result they missed the feast. Jesus’ final words put this parable in the context we are discussing today. “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming” (v.13). We are to keep alert, to be prepared for the coming of the Lord – whether it is His ultimate return at the end of the age or His coming to me at the end of my life. Commenting on this parable, St John Chrysostom says that the “oil” required for the coming of the Bridegroom is the alms we offer to those in need. Refusing to give alms marks us as fools for we have neglected to do what is needed to enter the wedding feast with the Bridegroom. We have come to the feast empty-handed because we have neglected to open our hand to the needy. Another image from this parable is found in the troparion of the Bridegroom, sung on the first days of Great Week. “Beware, therefore, O my soul lest you fall into a deep slumber and be delivered to death and the door of the kingdom be closed on you.” We can easily forget that the Lord is coming and drift off to sleep if we are not constantly alert. Cultivating the life in Christ (“trimming our lamps”) requires our continual attention. We are reminded to keep alert whenever we gather in the church for prayer where we stand facing east. This ancient custom which we inherit from the Old Testament era is connected in the Church to the words of Christ, “For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matthew 24:27). We face the East, the direction of His coming, in the imagery of this saying. As we stand in church and look up we see the image of Christ in glory, the Pantocrator, in the dome or another prominent place. This is in fact the central detail in the icon of the Ascension: Christ, enthroned upon the cherubim, taken up from the disciples. Placing this icon in the domes of our churches is a graphic reminder that “This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
O Lord, Your Angels spoke to Your Apostles: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking up at the skies? This Christ God who has been taken from you will return, just as you saw Him go up into the heavens. Serve Him in holiness and righteousness!”
Feast of the Ascension, Hymn at the Liti

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