The Holy Orthodox Church commemorates the Ascension of our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ, forty days after His glorious Resurrection. The event of the Lord’s Ascension in glory is described in both books attributed to St. Luke the Evangelist: The Gospel of Luke (24:36-53) and the Acts of the Apostles (1:2-11).
The Lord Jesus appeared to His disciples over a period of forty days, verifying and assuring His Resurrection and entrusting them with an Apostolic mission to ‘go forth and preach in His Name to all the nations’. After Christ had fulfilled His great dispensation for us, He ascended in glory into heaven and sat at the right hand of God the Father. “He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10).
The Gospel passage begins with Jesus appearing in the midst of His disciples, saying to them: “Peace to you” (24:36). The Evangelist Luke mentions that the disciples “were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit” (24:37), so in order to prove to them the reality of His Resurrection, Jesus “showed them His hands and His feet” (24:40) and said to them: “Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have” (24:39). Then He asked them: “Have you any food here?” (24:41).
Here we see Christ asking for food to eat, not because He was in need of sustenance after His Resurrection, but to show His disciples that His body had truly risen from the dead, and He wasn’t a pure phantom or a spirit. He condescends not only to be touched by His disciples but to eat with them.
The disciples gave Jesus “a piece of a broiled fish and honeycomb. And He took it and ate in their presence” (24:42-43). Being fishermen, they were able to offer Christ what they were used to eating themselves and for this reason they gave Him a piece of grilled fish. But the ‘honeycomb’ is very symbolic. According to the Mosaic law, a true Passover meal included bitter herbs (Exodus 12:8) to represent the last bitterness of bondage, but after the Resurrection of Christ, “the food is sweetened with honeycomb” (St John Chrysostom). The honeycomb, therefore, was symbolic of the sweetness of the new life overcoming the bitterness of the life of slavery.
The Evangelist Luke then writes: “He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures” (24:45). This is to assure us that the interpretation of the Bible is the work of the Holy Spirit and not solely attributed to human effort or knowledge. The same thing happened with the two disciples walking to Emmaus. The risen Lord appeared to them, and after breaking bread they recognised Him, “And they said to one another, “Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).
In the person of the Lord Jesus, all the prophecies of the Old Testament were fulfilled. That is why He said to His disciples: “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day” (24:46).
Then the Lord Jesus continues His instructions to His disciples, telling them “that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (24:47). He has already given them authority to loosen and bind sins by appearing to them after His Resurrection and breathing on them, saying: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22-23).
Christ ordered His disciples to “tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high” (24:49). St. Luke records in his other book, the Book of Acts, the same saying: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). We know from the gospel of St. John that Jesus had already told His disciples about His Ascension and the sending of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit when He said to them: “Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7).
The Lord’s Ascension left His disciples with the feeling of being ‘orphans’. The service of Vespers of the feast says: “When the Apostles saw You ascending in the clouds, O life-giving Christ, they frowned deeply, and mourned with tears, saying: Leave us not orphans, O Master, Your servants whom You did love in Your mercy; for You are compassionate.” (Vespers stichera).
The Lord’s Ascension from earth to heaven, like His descending from heaven to earth by the mystery of the divine incarnation, was a part of the plan for the dispensation of our salvation, or what is called the mystery of the Divine Oikonomia. The Kontakion summarises the meaning of the feast:
“When You did fulfil Your dispensation for our sakes, uniting the terrestrials with the celestials, You did ascend in glory, O Christ our God, inseparable in space, but constant without separation, and crying to Your beloved, I am with you, and no one shall be against you.”
With the Lord’s ascension into heaven, He ascended with Him our fallen nature and seated it with the Father. We chant:
“God has ascended in jubilation, the Lord with the voice of the trumpet, to raise the fallen likeness of Adam, and send the comforting Spirit to sanctify our souls.”
(Vespers Doxasticon for the Ascension
In an case, the festal hymns stress that Christ has ascended “whither He was before”. The Lord’s ascension in the body made the angels astonished and amazed “as they saw a man higher than them”. This is the honour and dignity that the Lord gave to our human race, first by His incarnation, and then by His Ascension.
The Gospel passage ends with the Lord Jesus raising His hands and giving His disciples His final blessing: “while He blessed them…He was parted from them and carried up into heaven” (24:51). In the Acts of the Apostles, we read: “a cloud received Him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). The appearance of the cloud upon the Ascension of the Lord is a sign of His divinity, just as the glory of God appeared to Israel in a cloud over the Tabernacle (Exodus 40:34 and Numbers 9:15). St. John Chrysostom comments on the matter of the cloud, saying: “This too was a sure sign that He went up to Heaven. Not fire, as in the case of Elijah, nor fiery chariot, but a cloud received Him; which was a symbol of Heaven, as the Prophet says; Who makes the clouds His chariot (Psalm 104:3).”
And in the Acts of the Apostles, two angels appeared in white clothing (Acts 1:10) and spoke to the apostles about the second coming of Christ: “This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). The teaching about His Ascension and His glorified Second coming are integral parts of the Orthodox Statement of Faith, The Creed: “and ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father; and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”
The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles end with the disciples returning to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, rejoicing in the promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit, “and were continually in the temple praising and blessing God” (Luke 24:53).
The event of the Ascension of our Lord is a constant reminder for us Christians that we are “partakers of the heavenly calling” (Heb. 3:1) and also that “our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20).