On 3 June the Church commemorates the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ.
At the all-night vigil on the eve of the Ascension, we hear this prophecy from the Book of Zechariah (14:2): “On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem.”
Isaiah predicts the same, but only Zechariah names the place where Jesus ended his earthly journey. The Mount of Olives still exists. Some come here to worship, others to be buried, hoping for an express journey to Heaven. The slopes of the Mount of Olives are now the most expensive cemetery in the world. But for most Christians who cannot visit, the Mount of Olives still occupies an important place in their lives – or, more exactly, in their lives to come.
All the events that happened to Christ after His Resurrection belong to His afterlife. Only Jesus (and the Mother of God, as the church tradition tells us) lived after their death in their transfigured bodies, constituting an integral part of the undivided human nature.
The Ascension reminds us about our homeland in heaven that will welcome those who did not just buy themselves a burial slot on the Mount of Olives but dedicated their whole lives to Christ.
Let us recall these words of the Apostle Paul from the Epistle to the Romans that we hear during the sacrament of Baptism: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6: 4 – 5)
To paraphrase the Apostle, by being like Christ in His death and resurrection, we will be like him in the likeness of the Ascension. The forty days after Pascha is a brief moment that unveils the prospect of our existence in eternity, beyond the Final Judgment.
But what does that mean to us more specifically? Buddhism preaches four noble truths shared by the adherents of all its variants. But Christian teachings are more than noble – they are genuine and life-giving. Let us review five such truths revealed to us by the Ascension our Lord.
Christ went to Heaven to intercede for us before His Father. But how is that possible, one may wonder: Had not the Son of God interceded for the people and the world before He became incarnate? I cannot answer this objection, because the relationships among the persons of the Holy Trinity are a mystery beyond the capabilities of the human mind.
But this time, everything is different. Christ sacrificed His life on the Cross, and now He is in a position to ask for us in the name of His sacrifice. The Saviour is the Lamb, but He is also the High Priest who makes the offering in the temple of Jerusalem in Heaven. It is hard to wrap our minds around it, and we can rely only on our senses and intuition that tell us that His ascension and intercessions are meaningful to every human being, including ourselves.
The Apostle Paul thus explains why Christ had to leave the earth:
“If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already priests who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. <…> But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one since the new covenant is established on better promises.” (Hebrews 8: 4 – 6)
With His Ascension, the Lord showed us the way to Heaven. The original sin distorted human nature and brought discord to the world, but it created an irreparable separation between us and the Creator. The incarnate Son of God built a bridge for our return to our Father, but he could not mend the divide between us and the Lord completely by remaining earth in body and soul.
The Ascension removes the distance between us and the Father and returns us to His abode where we had once lived. The Holy Martyr Stephen heard this message in this revelation from the Book of Acts (7:56): “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
Likewise, the Apostle Paul also wrote this about himself: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows.” (2 Corinthians 12:2). The impediments are out of our way. We are all free to enter our Jerusalem in Heaven.
We recognise the signs of the Kingdom of Heaven while still on earth. As Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane: “I have given them the glory that you gave me.” (John 17:22)
We bear witness to His Kingdom when we pray a heartfelt prayer, as we encounter His grace, and partake of His Body and Blood. It is the Kingdom that is coming, but which we may already experience today, if only briefly and in an incomplete form.
Life is not free from its troubles, and Christians have to wrestle with their weaknesses and struggle with temptations. But in any adversity, we will find the strength to rise to our feet and move on just because have known the Kingdom. It gives us a sense of direction and gives us the strength to proceed.
Without the Ascension, there would be no Pentecost. We cannot experience the Kingdom outside the Church, and the Church rests on the Holy Spirit, our source of comfort and reassurance that Christ sent to us. Only by the grace of His spirit can we find Heaven on earth. We can imagine ourselves on the doorstep of the Kingdom. From time to time, we can get a glimpse of it, and hear the heavenly music streaming out. But we cannot enter it yet – we still have a lot of work to do, and we need love.
The Ascension is also a promise of the Second Coming of the Lord. The angels have said to the apostles: “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11)
The world still lies in evil, but it can also bring forth the citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. But when no more saints are born into this world, its existence will become meaningless, and the Lord will put an end to it. But as long as the world stands, we all have the hope of becoming saints.
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Like so many other things about the Church, the Feast of the Ascension is exceptional. It gives us a lot to think about, encourages us to grow and gives us a sense of purpose.
Greetings on the Feast of the Ascension to all of you.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds