The Ascension of our Lord
Every notable event in the earthly life of our Lord is recalled, solemnized and celebrated by his Body, our blessed Church. Today we celebrate the final, but certainly not the last significant happening.
The gospels paint a simple, but inspiring picture of the Lord's return to the Father. The event we celebrated a few days ago seals and completes his time among us for the sake of our salvation.
The Lord gathered his followers on the mount in Bethany. He most seriously and lovingly speaks with them and leaves them a particular legacy: "Go therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." And then, before the disciples know it, Christ is leaving them. He raises his hand in a final blessing upon them and as they stare heavenward, He is lifted upward and shortly hidden from their view by the clouds.
In the book, Acts of the Apostles, we see that as the friends of the Lord gazed upward, two men in white appeared and said "You men of Galilee, why do you stand looking toward heaven? This Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven shall return in the same way as you saw him go...."
And St. Luke tells us the apostles returned to Jerusalem "...with great joy" after the ascension. We know it is not customary to rejoice at a farewell, but time shows there was much reason for their happiness on this occasion. So we are impelled to ask, "Why did the Lord leave? Why didn't He remain among his disciples and friends? But as we see, there are a number of reasons for the ascension of Christ into heaven and why his followers were happy as they witnessed this event.
Jesus ascends to the Father because his work on earth is done. Initially He came among us as an infant child to grow into our humanity to seek and save the lost. He has completed the work of our salvation. "It is finished!" He cried out from the cross. Just as we who have come to worship today are dismissed at the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy and we gather to fellowship in the hall, and just as certainly as the worker lays aside his tools and returns home after his workday is completed, just as the soldier, once war has been won, puts away his arms and rejoins his loved ones; now Christ, having completed the redemptive work for which He came into the world to achieve, returns home to reign at the right hand of the Father.
Christ ascends that He might send the Holy Spirit. It is plain from Scripture the Lord did not leave his Body, the Church orphaned; God the Holy Spirit soon came to take up his dwelling in us. At the Mystical Supper our Lord shared with us: "Now I am going to him who sent me ... It is to your advantage that I go. If I do not go, the Comforter will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you."
It is an astounding and marvelous provision the Lord has made here. If Christ remained on earth in glorified body, He apparently would have been out of place since his vocation was fulfilled. Now would be the time and vocation of the Holy Spirit, vital for our sanctity and salvation. Now the work of the Church begun by the Lord is continued in the person of the Holy Spirit.
The Lord returned to the Father to prepare a place for us. On the very night prior to his crucifixion and death, He opened his loving heart to the group of disciples: "I go to prepare a place for you ... and I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, you may also be." That is why St. Paul writes to his parishioners in Corinth: "For we know that when our earthly house is destroyed, that is when death comes, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens."
Christ ascends to take his rightful place at the right hand of the Father. This is the descriptive language the Church uses in the Creed to tell us the Lord continues now to intercede before the Father. Having achieved our redemption, He now prays continually that we remain faithful to what He has done and that we take advantage of heavenly grace and use it for the salvation of our souls. Christ told us, "If you ask anything of the Father, he will give it to you in my name. Up until now you have asked nothing in my name; but ask now and you will receive, you're your joy may be complete." And of course, St. Mark tells us simply, "Jesus was taken up into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father." What is different now is that our frail and frugal humanity is present in heaven. Christ in his human nature ascended as well. For the first time, therefore, humanity is spiritually and physically present before the eternal Father, pleading our cause.
And of course, Christ ascends into heaven to prepare for his grand and glorious return on the last day. In the farewell discourse at the Mystical Supper, our Lord reminds us, "I will come again." At his ascension, two angelic messengers tell us, "This Jesus ... shall return." The profession of faith we make in the Nicene Creed makes it clear: "And He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead." The Lord returns to the Father to make ready for the day of reckoning. Initially He came in all humility and departed in triumph, now He shall return and come in all glory.
We cannot permit the Ascension of our Lord to mean He has left us to our own devices. His return to the Father means He is with us in all places, in all times. He comes to us in reality in the Blessed Eucharist. He is with us in prayer and worship. "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in their midst." The Lord taught us, "I am with you always, even to the end of the world." He assures us we can do all things in him who strengthens us. The most common liturgical greeting emphasizes this reality: "Christ is among us!" as we signify our awareness, and concurrence, "He is and shall be!"
For us, the hymnology of the Church expresses it succinctly and best: "When you fulfilled the plan of salvation for us and united all things on earth to those in heaven, 0 Christ our God, You ascended in glory, never leaving us, but remaining ever-present. For You proclaim to those who love you, `I am with and no one else has power over you."' Kontakion, Feast of the Ascension of our Lord.