The Ascension: The Meaning and the Fullness of Christ’s Resurrection

“I ascend unto My Father, and your Father, and to my God, and Your God” (John 20:17).

Today is the fortieth day after the glorious Resurrection of Christ—Ascension Thursday. The Risen Lord is also the Ascended Lord and, therefore, in the words of Father Georges Florovsky, “in the Ascension resides the meaning and the fullness of Christ’s Resurrection.”  Though the visible presence of the Risen Lord ended forty days after His Resurrection, that did not mean that His actual presence was withdrawn. For Christ solemnly taught His disciples – and us through them – “Behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20).  The risen, ascended and glorified Lord is the Head of His body, the Church. The Lord remains present in the Mysteries/Sacraments of the Church. This reinforces our need to participate in the sacramental life of the Church, especially the Eucharist, through which we receive the deified flesh and blood of the Son of God, “unto life everlasting.”

Christ ascended to be seated at “the right hand of the Father” in glory, thus lifting up the humanity He assumed in the Incarnation into the very inner life of God. For all eternity, Christ is God and man. The deified humanity of the Lord is the sign of our future destiny “in Christ.” For this reason, the Apostle Paul could write “your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). In his homily on the Ascension, Saint Gregory Palamas (+1359) draws out some of the implications of this further:

“In the same way as He came down, without changing place but condescending to us, so He returns once more, without moving as God, but enthroning on high our human nature which He had assumed.  It was truly right that the first begotten human nature from the dead (Revelations 1:5) should be presented to God, as first fruits from the first crop offered for the whole race of men.  On account of our sins He was led to death, and for us He rose and ascended, preparing our own resurrection and ascension for unending eternity. For all the heirs of everlasting life follow as far as possible the pattern of His saving work on earth.  Those who live according to Christ imitate what He did in the flesh. Just as He died physically, so in time everyone dies, but we shall also rise again in the flesh as He did, glorified and immortal, not now but in due course, when we shall also ascend, as Paul says, for ‘we shall be caught up,’ he says, ‘in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord’ (1 Thessalonians 4:17)”  [The Saving Work of Christ: Sermons by Saint Gregory Palamas, pp. 113-114].

The words of the “two men … in white robes,” (clearly angels) who stood by the disciples as they gazed at Christ being “lifted up,” and recorded by Saint Luke in Acts 1:11, point toward something very clear and essential for us to grasp as members of the Church that exists within the historical time of the world: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” The disciples will remain in the world, and must fulfill their vocation as the chosen apostles who will proclaim the Word of God to the world of the crucified and risen Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. They cannot spend their time gazing into heaven awaiting the return of the Lord. That hour has not been revealed: “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority” (Acts 1:7). The “work” of the Church is the task set before them, and they must do this until their very last breath. They will carry out this work once they receive the power of the Holy Spirit – the “promise of my Father”—as Christ said to them (Luke 24:49). Whatever our vocation may be, we too witness to Christ and the work of the Church as we await the fullness of God’s Kingdom according to the times or seasons of the Father.