On June 6, we celebrated the Ascension of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. On the 40th Day from His Resurrection Christ ascended into Heaven. Two men (angels) in white apparel stood by the crowd and said: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). When we look at the icon of the Ascension, the words of those two angels resonate. The icon shows Christ being held up in the sky by two angels. His Apostles, followers with the Theotokos at the forefront are gazing up toward Him. In a way the icon is ambiguous of whether He is ascending to Heaven or coming “again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” Both the living and the dead are waiting in anticipation for His Second Coming which is the Last Judgment. We hear in the Doxastikon at Vespers for the Feast: “God ascended with a shout, the Lord with the sound of the trumpet, to exalt the fallen image of Adam, and to send the Paraclete Spirit to sanctify our souls.” This is very similar to 1 Thessalonians 4:16 which speaks about His Second Coming: “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God.” For the next ten days until the 50th day we wait in anticipation of the Descent of the Holy Spirit.
Christ promised His Apostles before His Crucifixion that He would send them the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. He must ascend for the Spirit to descend. Jesus told the Apostles to wait in Jerusalem for the day the Spirit would descend upon them; this day of course is Pentecost. The 40 days leading up to Ascension, Jesus appeared to His Apostles and to Mary Magdalene on several occasions. He appeared to them but did not live among them as He did before His Crucifixion. The body after His Resurrection is incorrupt and immortal. This signifies the type of body we will have after His Second Coming when He ushers the righteous into His Kingdom. When Mary Magdalene beheld the Risen Christ, Jesus said to her: “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father” (John 20:17). It was not that Jesus was forbidding anyone to touch Him, certainly He permitted Thomas to touch His side and hands to see the marks of His Crucifixion. However, Jesus wanted Mary to realize that His life is not just a continuation in the state before His Crucifixion and that He will ascend to the Father.
Before His Ascension, Jesus gave His Apostles one last commandment: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15) For once the Holy Spirit descended upon them at Pentecost, the Apostles were enabled by the Spirit to speak in many tongues and began to spread the Good News throughout the entire world. Both the ministerial priesthood which is the clergy and the royal priesthood which is the laity have the responsibility to preach and bear witness to the Gospel. Christ completed His earthly ministry and sent the Holy Spirit to guide us so we may continue His work. It is sometimes confusing when we embrace this: Christ ascends, the Spirit descends. Does this mean that the Holy Spirit was not among us when Christ was on Earth? Does it mean now that He has ascended and the Spirit descended that Christ is no longer among us? There is one God in Three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It was the Second Person of the Trinity, the Logos, who “took on flesh and dwelt among us.” The Logos of course is Jesus Christ. When Christ ascended to Heaven, He took humanity with Him, since He is both fully divine and fully human. Jesus told us that if we see Him we see the Father. At both the Baptism of Christ and His Transfiguration, the Trinity was revealed. In both cases the voice of the Father was heard and at His Baptism, the Holy Spirit appeared like a dove descending upon Jesus. At the Transfiguration, however, the Holy Spirit manifested as the bright light that emanated from Jesus which was uncreated. The Holy Spirit was of course ever present when Jesus was on Earth, for the miracles and great works of Christ were the working of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the Creator of Life. When Christ ascended to Heaven and was no longer physically present among us, He sent the Holy Spirit as He had promised. It is the Holy Spirit who reveals the Son and leads us to Him. In turn it is the Son who reveals to us the Father. We worship one God in Three Persons. Not an easy concept to grasp but not to worry; if we have faith and want to know Him, God through His energies reveals Himself to us. We chant this at every Orthros: “God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us, Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord.”
May we all rejoice that the Risen Christ has ascended into Heaven and sits at the Right Hand of the Father. As we venerate the blessed icon, we commemorate the historic event of His Ascension but also with awe and anticipation see Christ coming again in all His glory to judge the living and the dead.
Christ has ascended!
A blessed feast to all!
John Athanasatos, PharmD, MDiv, a pharmacist, attended Long Island University and St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.