Holy Ascension: Our Call to Action

The following homily was offered by Dcn. Michael Schlaack on the Sunday following Holy Ascension

This past week a major Feast of the Church was celebrated, but because it occurred in the middle of the week, it is possible that many of us may have totally forgotten about it, and thus missed an extremely important event in the life of the young Church that has an impact on our faith today.  The Ascension of the Lord comes between the two better known Feasts of Pascha and Pentecost, and therefore seems to be lost in the crowded Liturgical calendar of the Church.  However, when we take a few minutes to reflect on the meaning of this important event, we can better appreciate the impact it has on our Christian faith.

Although the Ascension does not receive the same amount of attention as either Pascha or Pentecost, when considered from the view point of its significance on our relationship with God and the effect it had on early Church, we can see that the Ascension of the Lord is indeed a major event that demands greater and more thorough consideration.  To build a better appreciation, we need to examine the Feast from two aspects: First, from the overall impact on our understanding of the two natures of Christ; and secondly, how the event can help us to better we live our Orthodox Christian faith.

Something that we all notice is that the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord occurs 40 days after Pascha.  The number 40 has great significance from a Biblical standpoint, and we see it occurring in both the Old and New Testaments.  Forty is considered a number representing period of trial and testing.  Consider the forty days and nights of the great flood and the Noahic covenant that resulted.  Or how the Israelites were tested for forty years in the desert with the result being the Mosaic covenant and their eventual arrival into the promised land. In the New Testament, we see that Jesus spent forty days fasting and praying in the desert in preparation of his earthly ministry.  Jesus’ resistance to the temptations from Satan demonstrates to us that it is humanlypossible to say no to Satan’s empty promises and to seek the riches of heaven rather than of those of the earth.  Likewise, the forty days between Pascha and Ascension represent a period of trial and testing for the new Church.  What began as a huddled group hiding behind closed doors immediately following the events of the Passion and Resurrection, would turn into a force that had been unseen in the world before or since.  Christ fulfilled the His promise and the words of the prophets by raising Himself from the dead, and the forty days that He spent with his followers changed them from simple disciples to apostles, emboldened and prepared to spread the Gospel of Christ to the entire world.

So, we can see that the Ascension represents the fulfillment Christ’s work on earth and demonstrates clearly the two natures of His being, both divine and human.  Coming down from heaven, God became incarnate and was born of a human, living as a man but performing miracles and teaching as God.  He was crucified and buried as a dead man, but He rose as a living God.  He then appeared amongst His disciples for the next forty days, providing evidence that He was truly alive.  It was after those forty days, when His work on earth was completed, that He then ascended, returning to the Father in Heaven so that we may all receive the powerful gift of the Holy Spirit.  At this point the life and work of the Son of God came full circle.  These events, punctuated as they were by the Holy Ascension, would be used as proof of Christ’s two natures—divine and human; God and man—as the Church Fathers fought against the numerous heresies during the first five centuries of the Church’s existence.

So, we understand the importance of celebrating the Ascension from the standpoint that the event testifies to the two natures of Christ.  This fact is of course important from a theological standpoint, but what does the Feast mean to us on a practical level?  How can we put the Holy Ascension of the Lord into practice?  As is so often the case, the simplest answer is usually the best.  

While the Ascension of the Lord is described briefly at the end of the Gospels of Saints Mark and Luke, the clearest description is found in the Act of the Apostles.  In verses 1-12 of the first chapter, which is part of the Epistle reading for the Feast, we read that just before His ascension into heaven, while the disciples were gathered together on Mount Olivet, Jesus told them to expect to receive power from the Holy Spirit, and it is this strength that will enable them to bear witness of the risen Christ locally and throughout the world. After making this pronouncement, Jesus was taken up into the heavens, “and a cloud received Him out of their sight” (v. 1:9). 

 “Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.  And while they looked steadfastlytoward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This sameJesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.’”

In the Greek translation, the word that is translated in English as “looked steadfastly” is atenizontes (atenizontes), which means “stretching,” or in this case, “looking intently.”  This give the visual of the disciple stretching their necks, staring into the sky in hopes of seeing beyond the cloud to where the ascended Christ went. 

This staring into space by the disciples must have gone on for some time because we next read that two men clothed in white garments had to shake them out of their stunned amazement and bring their attention back to the mission for which they were chosen by Christ to carry out since the beginning of His earthly ministry. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This sameJesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.”   This is more than just a rebuke from a couple of strangers for staring up into the sky; these words are in fact their call to action!  The earthly ministry of the Son of God had come full circle.  They were no longer to stand around waiting for more direct guidance from Jesus as they had come to rely on over the previous three years. Jesus promised that they would not be left on their own and that He would ask the Father to send down the Comforter who will guide them in all things.  It was now time for them to change from being disciples, simple followers of their Teacher, and assume their role as Apostles, spreading the Good News throughout the rest of world.  This great change that God has planned for His people now depended on them, Christ’s Apostles, to move through the power of the Holy Spirit.  The time for staring into space is over; it is now time to act.

We, too, may sometimes find ourselves in a similar predicament as Christ’s disciples on that day, standing on Mount Olivet, wondering where Jesus has gone. Sometimes He may seem too far off, hidden by the clouds of uncertainty and despair, to ever be able to provide that direction and guidance that we need and depend on.  But just as the strangers said to the disciples on the day of the Lord’s Ascension, we need to get our head out of the clouds and beginning focusing on the mission that Christ has chosen us to do.  Jesus said that He would not abandon us, and His Ascension was necessary so that the Holy Spirit could come and work through the men and women of faith to let everyone know that Christ is risen and that He will return.  Everything He promised has come to pass and so there is no reason for us, just like his disciples on Mount Olivet, not to believe that Jesus will keep His final promise and return on the day of the final judgement of world.  The simple truth is that we have all received all the spirit we are ever going to get through our baptism and chrismation, so now it is up to us to be willing to be used by God’s Holy Spirit to make that change in the world that He has called us to make.

So, let me ask you here today: “What are you staring at?  What is that you are waiting for?”  The time is now.  No one else is available but you. Just as Jesus was able to take a small band of followers and turn them into a mighty force that changed the world, I believe that we here at St. Mary Magdalene parish have the same power to become a life-changing force in our community—and the world—as well.  We just need to stop staring at the sky waiting for Jesus to return and accept the mission that He sets before each of us. In His final words recorded by St. Matthew we receive our authority, our job and our promise: “’All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.  Gotherefore andmake disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teachingthem to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I amwith you always, evento the end of the age.’ Amen”(Matt. 28:18-20).