By: Mina Shehata
Little attention is given to the ascension of Christ. It is often overshadowed by the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, and eclipsed by the present workings and future Second Coming of Christ. Celebrated in our ravenous post-“seyami” (fasting) agenda after the Feast of the Resurrection, it typically comes and goes and we are still munching on our Tim Tams; planning how to best gluttonize ourselves in our final days of non-fasting…
Saint Augustine of Hippo once said:
“the ascension is a festival which confirms the grace of all the festivals together, without which the profitableness of every festival would have perished. For unless the Saviour had ascended into heaven, his Nativity would have come to nothing … and his Passion would have born no fruit for us, and his most holy Resurrection would have been useless.”
Hold up. Let’s re-read that again.
Is St Augustine really saying that without the Ascension, Christ’s birth and death are “nothing” and “useless”?!
Clearly, there’s a dichotomy between the way we treat this major feast, and the way the Church views it!
Before we begin exploring it, I pose the question, “How many days after the Resurrection did the Ascension occur?”
“40 days… that’s a no brainer!” would be the typical response.
But are you sure?
Three passages of Scripture (John, Luke and Acts) best express this historic event.
John 20: 17-26 (set on the day of the Resurrection) states:
“Jesus said to her [Mary Magdalene], “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God… Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
Interestingly, the word “ascend” is used in the present tense. Was Christ at that very moment in the process of His ascension, with Mary Magdalene retaining Him?
Bearing in mind that Thomas was not with the disciples when Christ appeared to them, let’s continue reading:
“And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!”
More questions rouse interest. Where was Jesus in these eight days? Wasn’t He ascending a week ago? Why does Christ permit Thomas to touch Him, but not Mary as He is “ascending”? Is it because Christ had already ascended by the time Thomas met Him?
So I’m praying that these questions made you go back and re-read the passage (bonus points if you opened up the chapter!). Although we can’t adequately address any of these questions just yet, we get the impression that John almost portrays Christ as ascending on the VERY day of the Resurrection.
As strange as this sounds, this unity between the Resurrection and Ascension is not as foreign to our Church as you might think. Up until the 4th century, the early Church celebrated the Resurrection and Ascension as one feast (that’s right, for approximately 300 years!). In fact, the entire 50 days between the Resurrection of Christ and the Pentecost was the celebration of both the Resurrection and Ascension feasts. The early Church saw these events as one process and one movement for our salvation.
Before you dismiss this connection as fastidious, let’s turn to Luke’s account] (Lk 24: 13- 52):
“13 Now behold, two of them were traveling that same day [day of Resurrection] to a village called Emmaus, which was seven miles from Jerusalem… So it was, while they conversed and reasoned, that Jesus Himself drew near and went with them. 16 But their eyes were restrained, so that they did not know Him… Now it came to pass, as He sat at the table with them, that He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him; and He vanished from their sight…33 So they rose up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, Now as they said these things, Jesus Himself stood in the midst of them, and said to them, “Peace to you.”… 50 And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. 51 Now it came to pass, while He blessed them, that He was parted from them and carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped Him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple praising and blessing God. Amen.”
Note, that the events of this passage all occur in the same day! Analogously to John’s account, Luke says that the Resurrection was on the same day as the Ascension – it’s just made more explicitly!
Lastly, let’s examine our final account of the ascension, Acts 1: 1-9.
“The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, 2 until the day in which He was taken up, after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen, 3 to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God… Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.
Here we read of the renowned 40 days. It’s worthwhile remembering that the book of Acts was written by Luke, the author of the gospel of Luke (whom we just read our second passage from). So how can Luke in his gospel say that Christ ascended the very day of his Resurrection, while in Acts it says it occurred 40 days later? It’s the same author?!
How do we reconcile all of this?
Is there a contradiction?
Father Daniel Fanous insists that in reality we’re looking at three different events that illustrate the active continual process of the Ascension. What does that mean?
When Christ tells Mary Magdalene that “I’m ascending to my father” it’s truly because He ascends then. When Christ meets Thomas eight days later, He truly descends before then to meet and strengthen our “doubting” brother Thomas. This ascending and descending process continues throughout the 40 days – almost as if Christ is bringing the grace of Heaven to earth, and earth to Heaven; paving the way for humanity to partake of Him. And at the end of the 40 days, Christ ascends for the final and complete ascension.
St John Chrysostom comments on this final ascension on the fortieth day, saying:
“On this day all mankind was restored to God, the long warfare and prolonged estrangement was ended”.
Quite often we believe that the resurrection was the summit and completion of salvation, however St John Chrysostom points out that this was a process that was completed at the Ascension. Thus, the Ascension does something drastic for us; it marks the entrance of resurrected humanity in Heaven.
We see that while the incarnation meant the self-humiliation, self-renunciation, and self-abnegation (Phil. 2:5-11) of Christ, the ascension into heaven was the removal of these restricting factors and the resumption of that fullness of glory before the Incarnation. The Ascension was undoubtedly an important event in the life of Christ marking the conclusion of His earthly ministry, and the opportunity for the permanent descent of the Holy Spirit for all humanity thereafter.
St John Chrysostom continues:
“We are not worthy of even earthly dignity, but we now ascend with Christ to a Heavenly Kingdom…we in Him are also raised to Heaven”.
Coupled with verses such as John 14:3, “I [Christ] go and prepare a place for you [disciples]”, Christ illustrates that not only does His ascension highlight His divine status, but by extension allows and invites us to join and partake of Him in this glory.
St Cyril of Alexandria beautifully summarises the Ascension in:
“Having blessed them and gone ahead a little, he was carried up into Heaven so that he might share the Father’s throne even with the flesh that was united to Him”
No discussion of the Ascension is complete without realizing its ties to us here and now, that is, in the Eucharist. For in the Liturgy, the Church with Jesus becomes a community of ascension and oblation, sharing in His heavenly offering to the Father, and manifesting the Spirit who reorganizes created reality around Him. It is in the Eucharist that we witness what actually happened in the Ascension – namely the entire cosmos becoming fundamentally reordered, sanctified and taken up to Heaven to God the Father in Christ.
Taken as a whole, the prayer of the Church is therefore a continual ascent of man towards intimacy with God, a procession upwards in the steps of Jesus the Forerunner, towards the Father. This ascension culminates in the divinization of human nature, not only in the life beyond but here and now. The climax of this divinization is the Eucharistic communion in which we partake of God Himself as he transforms us through this union with Himself.
This mystery of ascending to God can be experienced here and now! Cease this opportunity! Turn to Him with repentance. Don’t forget that!
May we always “lift up our hearts” to the Lord earnestly.
Glory be to God.
This pattern of ascending and descending is not novel to the student of the Old Testament. Throughout the Bible we see this underlying motif e.g. Adam and Eve living in an open horizon of divine blessings in the Garden of Eden, however because of their disobedience they were cast out and lived with their progeny in the plains below, in the “land of sepulture” (as referred to by St Irenaeus). A single righteous man through God rescued a wicked nation on the spiritual decline, by being carried in the ark “high above the earth” (Gen 7:17) for forty days. Abram is called from Ur of Chaldees into the hills of Canaan for the renewal of a divine promise for only many generations later to go down to the plains of the Nile to suffer there in Egypt for centuries in servitude. Brought out again by the mighty hand of God having passed through the deep of the Red Sea on dry ground, Moses ascends to the peak of the mountain to the glory of God. Down below the people dance round their golden fertility god, and waste away in the desert. Not until Yahweh establishes on Mount Zion the throne of David, does it begin to seem that the cherubim might at last drop their guard, for Eden to reappear: “Lift up your heads, O you gates be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in” (Ps 2). The story continues: David covets Bathsheba from the vantage point of the palace’s rooftop garden, ending with the sack of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and a return to the floodplains of Shinar. Afterwards under the benevolent Persian regime, a tiny pilgrimage led by Nehemiah ascends Zion once more to restore the walls of Jerusalem and its temple to Yahweh. Then comes a man, the new Adam, the new humanity, who humbles and empties Himself to the extent of taking on our flesh, so that He could complete what was promised long ago. He is seen “coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62) to eventually be “seated at the right hand side of the Father” (Mark 16:19).
 Farrow, Douglas. Ascension Theology. London: T & T Clark, 2011. Print.