by Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky
It is difficult to avoid the feeling of sadness now that the apodosis of Pascha has arrived, and we no longer sing “Christ is Risen”. Meanwhile, on the feast day of the Ascension of the Lord, the Church summons us towards joy: just like a mother who tries to elicit a smile in her hurt child by smiling.
But the call of the Church is bold, loud and firm. The Church apparently has knowledge of something new that the Ascension has brought us. The Apostles quickly overcame their sense of loss and returned from the Mount of Olives “with great joy” (Luke 24:52). What had happened to create such blessedness, what dissolved their personal sorrow?
The writings of the Apostles reveal to us the great benefits connected with the Ascension of Christ.
The first truth: the Lord ascended in order to intercede for us before His Father, for the sake of His Sacrifice on the Cross. He is the Lamb slaughtered for our sake, standing before the Divine Throne, and He is the High Priest Himself “the Intercessor Who brought forth the Sacrifice”. For if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, clarified Apostle Paul, for sacrifice on earth is only an image and shadow of the heavenly. But, as a “Mediator of a better covenant”, He entered heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us (Hebrews 8 and 9). And the Father, loving the Son, not only accepted His sacrifice for the whole world but granted Him power over the world and judgment of the world. The Son of God took upon Himself our response. “Who shall condemn the chosen of God? God justifies them. Who will bring condemnation? Christ died, but was risen: He is at the right hand of God, He intercedes for us.” “If God is with us, who can be against us?” This is the initial joy of the Ascension.
But another truth is then revealed to us.
By His Ascension, the Lord united heaven and earth and opened the doors to heaven to mankind. Heaven became accessible for man, it became desirable, it became mankind’s own. “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56) exclaimed the Holy First-Martyr Stephen. The Apostle Paul said, speaking of himself, “I knew a man caught up to the third heaven and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.” There are no boundaries, no limitations, free entry is afforded into the Kingdom of Heaven.
When we ponder this thought, it grows in our consciousness and in our hearts, transforming into a new celebration. The Lord reigns. He calls those who believe in Him, He consoles them, setting them upon thrones, making of them His co-inheritors, participants in His glory. “Where I am, there will you be also,” “I go to prepare a place for you”, said the Lord to His Apostles. “And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them,” He bore witness to His Father. Heaven became the wedding hall of the Groom and the Heavenly Church, His Bride. Instead of the earthly Jerusalem, a heavenly city shines, “the Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.” And believers while yet on earth and knowing themselves to be members of the earthly Church already lift their thoughts to this Kingdom of Glory. “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2).” “If we suffer, we will also reign with Him” (2 Timothy 2:12). “For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens (2 Corinthians 5:1).” So says the Apostle, “if we do not falter, if we remain true, that being clothed, we shall not be found naked”.
But was the world not abandoned with the Ascension of Christ, was it not orphaned? The Lord Himself answers this, consoling His disciples before His sufferings: “for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you” (John 16:7), that is, the Comforting Spirit. The bodily departure of the Son of God is bound together with the sending down upon the earth of the abundant gifts of the Holy Spirit, Whom Joel prophesied, cited by the Apostle Peter on the day of the Pentecost: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy (Acts 2:17-18).” The bearer of grace is the earthly Church of Christ. By His descent, the Holy Spirit created of the Church an earthly heaven, and the chosen of this earth even to their death He will show as “earthly angels”, shining forth for the world the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, blessedness, mercy, faith, meekness, abstention; the “earthly angels”, sealing their faith with the refusal of the world and of all in it, through martyrdom and confession. The earth became a part of heaven in this way, an entranceway to heaven.
But evil still works upon the earth, battling against Christ and His Church; the secret of lawlessness is at work, and the time is coming when it will be manifested in the Son of Perdition, the Antichrist. The world yet awaits its purification through fire and that very hour when the Son of Man will come in His glory to judge the world. That is why on the feast of the Ascension we recall the Second Coming of the Lord. “Why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven (Acts 1:11).”
For good reason do the words read “they returned with great joy”, the profound wisdom of the good news is expressed in its briefest form. The writings of the Apostles are filled with this meaning.
How are we not to yearn to share in the joy of the Ascension of the Lord?