Christos Anesti! Christ is Risen! Wednesday of the Sixth Week of Pascha. Ascended in Glory (Part I)
THE FEAST OF CHRIST’S Ascension is seldom given its due in the cycle of liturgical services, even within the Orthodox tradition. This is in part because it falls awkwardly on a Thursday, when most of our parishioners are at work. More significant is the fact that the theology, the deeply spiritual meaning of the feast, is not well understood.
The Ascension is difficult for us to grasp because the image it evokes seems so improbable. St Luke gives us two accounts of the event, at the close of his Gospel and at the beginning of the book of Acts. In the Gospel account, the risen Lord leads His disciples to the village of Bethany, beyond Jerusalem. Then, “while He blessed them, He parted from them, and was carried up into heaven” (Lk 24:51). In Acts Christ’s Ascension occurs forty days after the Resurrection. He promises to send upon the disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit, then He gives them the charge to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth. And when He had said this,” St Luke continues, “as they were looking on, He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight.” At this point, a pair of angelic beings informs the disciples that Jesus has been taken up into heaven and will return to them in the same manner as He ascended, “on the clouds.”
It would be easy to dismiss these accounts. First, they reflect what many consider today to be a naive and untenable cosmology, the vision of a universe in which Jesus was literally “taken up” to heaven, understood as “up there,” geographically locatable somewhere in outer space (or beyond). Second, the accounts seem to contradict each other. Did Jesus ascend on the Sunday of the Resurrection, or on a Thursday, the fortieth day?
In attempting to grasp the real meaning of this celebration, we need to remind ourselves once again that the Gospel writers were concerned less with history than with theology. They sought, through multiple images expressed by divergent traditions, to convey the inner meaning of Christ’s life, even if that led occasionally to inconsistencies (John and Luke offer two differing accounts of Pentecost as well, in John 20 and Acts 2, just as Matthew and Acts differ in their description of Judas’ death). What, then, is the theological significance of Christ’s Ascension?
The Ascension is in fact the fulfillment of the Incarnation. The eternal Son of God “took flesh” in the womb of the Virgin Mary. That is, He assumed human nature and “became man”—a particular man, Jesus of Nazareth—without giving up His divinity. As we sing in the troparion “Only Begotten Son of God,” He became man “without change.” In the language of the Eastern Fathers, He became truly the God-man, “fully God and fully man.” And He did so in order to restore our humanity from its fallen, sinful state to its state of original perfection, as God created it to be.
God intended His human creatures to share forever in the joy and gladness of Paradise, that is, in the deepest possible communion with Himself. But God also created us as free beings, in order that we might love Him in perfect freedom, without constraint. Sin, though, put an end to that intended relationship. We rebelled against God, and continue to do so. The result is our alienation from the only real source of life, love, and salvation. Finally, that rebellion leads to our death.
~John Breck, God with Us: Critical Issues in Christian Life and Faith