On the Feast of the Ascension, the Orthodox Catholic Church does not merely commemorate an historical event in the life of Christ. On this day, the Church celebrates Christ’s physical departure from the world and His glorification with God.
For forty days after His Resurrection, Jesus remained on earth. Filled with the glory and honor of His divinity, He appeared to His disciples at various times and places. By eating and drinking with His followers and conversing with them about the Kingdom of God, Jesus assured them that He was truly alive in His risen and glorified body.
On this day, Jesus appeared to His disciples and gave them His last commandment – to preach the Kingdom of God and the repentance and forgiveness of sins in His name to all nations, beginning with Jerusalem. Then He led them out of Jerusalem toward Bethany to the Mount of Olives. He lifted up His hands and blessed them. As His disciples were looking on, He was lifted up – or “ascended” – and a cloud took Him out of sight. While they were looking up, two angels in white robes appeared and said to them:
“Why are you men from Galilee standing here looking into the sky? Jesus, Who has been taken up from you into heaven, this same Jesus will come back in the same was as you have seen Him go there.”
When we ponder the icon of the Ascension, the distinction between heavenly peace and worldly confusion is most apparent upon the Mount of Olives. The Apostles look up in a combination of fear and wonder, their arms waving like the olive trees on the mount. In the center, the two angels “in white apparel” exhort the men to cease their gazing into heaven and return to Jerusalem to receive the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. Between the two angels stands Mary, the Mother of God, hands raised in prayer, not staring up, but peacefully toward us. Already overshadowed by the Holy Spirit since Christ’s conception, Mary appears to understand the deep mysteries of her Son’s birth, death, resurrection and ascension, already hoping on Christ’s return. This hope brings her the divine peace shared by Jesus Christ and the angels: they all have halos signifying the grace and glory of God, whereas the disordered Apostles do not.
The Ascension is, therefore, a sign and symbol of the Second Coming. Christ will return to the earth in the same manner as He left it. When the risen Lord returns again in glory, God’s will for humanity will be fulfilled. In ascending, Jesus raises earth to heaven with Him!