Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“God is gone up with a shout, the Lord with a sound of the trumpet” (Ps. 46 :5).
The Ascension of our Lord is one of the great Feasts of the Church, and yet because it falls all the time on a weekday, on Thursday, the 40th day after Pascha, it frequently is overlooked or doesn’t get its just observance. The Western Church has tried to remedy that by transferring this Feast to the Sunday just before the Ascension. But, still, this Feast needs its own day and space, apart from the regular Sunday cycle, to truly be appreciated and not be seen as “just another Sunday.” I hesitate to put it so bluntly because, truly, no Sunday can be or should be seen by us as “just another Sunday,” as though Sunday and all that it is as a “little Resurrection” each week is ho-hum, plain, and ordinary. Sunday might be set within what the Western Church calls “ordinary time,” but Sunday itself is far from ordinary. It is a remembrance and observation that Jesus Christ, crucified, is risen. And, with the Ascension He now is commemorated as going up on high with the shout of the Archangels and the trumpets of all the heavenly hosts! And, as He ascends, we hear once more that exchange of Pascha night at which the angelic hosts all stand in utter amazement, “Who is this King of Glory? The Lord of Hosts! He is the King of Glory!” (Ps. 23 :7-10). For most truly, the Lord Who descended from on high to be incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, now ascends with His own body of flesh, the likes never before known in Heaven! It is no wonder the angelic sentinels challenge the “newcomer” dressed in red garments from Bozrah “as if fresh from a trodden winepress” (Is. 62:10-63:3). The Lord God Almighty, their Master and King, now ascends as the mighty Champion over sin, death, and the devil, bringing with Him humanity redeemed and sanctified so that it might be glorified on high at the right hand of the Father unto ages of ages. This is the hope of which we sang at the Mid-Pentecost Feast in anticipation of the Ascension as “the sign of our coming glorification” (“Lord, I Call” stichera).
When our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ ascended on high that 40th day after His most glorious Resurrection from the dead, it is said in Sacred Scripture that He led “captivity captive, . . ., that [He] might dwell among them” (Ps. 67 :18). He goes, says Sacred Scripture, to the holy mountain of God, “far above all the heavens,” to “the house of God” far exalted above all the earth, so “that He might fill all things” (Ep. 4:8-10). He goes to serve in the heavenly Holy of Holies as our Great High Priest after the order of Melchizedek making intercession for us (Hb. 4:14-10:25). This Jesus was the Lamb of God on the Altar of the Cross here on earth, but now He has gone into Heaven as the Priest of the Sacrifice, offered eternally in the truly Divine Liturgy of which we have but a foretaste here. He Who has come in the flesh must go, and He Who ascends in the flesh must come again to receive His Flock unto Himself in toto (Ac. 1:1-12). The Feast of the Ascension of our Lord, therefore, is not a mere footnote or a convenient way to get Jesus off the stage. It is the divine revelation of our destiny in Him Who remains one with us in the flesh received from His Most Holy Mother and Ever-blessed Virgin. “Christ [God] was offered once to bear the sins of many,” says St. Paul. “To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation” (Hb. 9:28). The first time He came in the flesh was to deal a death blow to sin, death, and the devil (Hb. 2:14; 1 Jn. 3:8); the second time He will impart the fullness of salvation to those who love Him at His Coming (2 Tm. 4:8).
In short, Jesus ascends to the right hand of the Father in Glory precisely to restore us sinners, redeemed and sanctified by His Blood, to Paradise, that is, as the Fathers would wont – to the mountain of God (St. Ephrem the Syrian; St. Augustine). Notice, beloved, how both Scripturally and liturgically we are always “going up” to God to meet God, to be with Him where He dwells “far above the heavens.” In part, this is our eastern orientation to worship and prayer as we turn toward the Lord in the East and look to Paradise from whence we have come and whence we are returning in Jesus Christ our Great High Priest. We “lift up [our] eyes to the mountains, whence [our] help shall come . . . from the Lord, Who made the Heaven and the earth” (Ps. 120 :1-2). Architecturally, the sanctuary or Altar is generally raised up, elevated above the main floor of the nave, so that we ascend body and soul to the Holy of Holies, to Mt. Calvary, to Mt. Tabor, to the mountain of the Lord. Theologically and Biblically and liturgically, this “mountain of the Lord” and “house of God” is the Church, the New Jerusalem from on high. When the holy Apostle of our Lord says that when our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ “’ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men’” (Ps. 67 :18; Ep. 4:8), we can be assured that one of the gifts bestowed is the Church of the living God (1 Tm. 3:15), the Body and Bride of Jesus Christ (Ep. 1:22-23; 5:23-33). As Pope St. Leo the Great once concluded that the “visible Presence” of our Lord “has passed into the Sacraments [Mysteries],” we can conclude the same about the Church, the mountain and house of God, which is the greatest “visible Presence” of our Lord in the midst of the world, the enfleshment of the divine Mystery, “the fullness of Him Who fills all in all” (Ep. 1:23; Co. 1:18; 2:9)!
In a sense, when our Lord prophesied that He would draw all men to Himself when He was lifted up from the earth, it was not exclusively His Crucifixion He had in mind, but His most glorious Ascension in the flesh as well (Jn. 12:32). Jesus ascended the Cross in the flesh to deliver us from the bondage of the enemy (Troparion). The Church, beloved, is the fulfillment, on this side of eternity, of God’s promise to dwell among His people. She fulfills the promise of the Tabernacle and Temple in Israel and is made a sign of Paradise. From her goes forth the Word of the living God to all who would in faith, hear and believe. Through her God “[tells] us His way” so that “we [may] walk in it.” The Church, the New Jerusalem, the city of the living God (Hb. 12:22-24), is the Body in which all the nations of the world, once confused at Babel, can find unity. This, beloved, is the Mystery of Great and Holy Pentecost whose power from on high we await in prayer (Lk. 24:36-53; Ac. 1:1-12).
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
Zc. 14:1, 4, 8-11