What is Jesus doing now? That is the question raised by the feast of the Ascension which we celebrate on Thursday of this week, forty days after Pascha. We know from the Gospels and the apostolic tradition of his life in the world, of his birth, baptism, life, miracles and teaching, and especially of his death, burial, and resurrection. But when we think of the ascension, if we think of it at all, we too often think of it only as Jesus going up to Heaven, there to wait until his second coming, while the world goes on its merry way.
Nothing, however, could be further from the truth! The entire faith, liturgy, and life of the Church throughout its history is a response to what it perceives Jesus to be doing now. The entire New Testament presumes his ascension into Heaven and present reign over all things. Specifically, the book of Acts, Saint Paul's letters to the Ephesians, the Colossians, and the Hebrews, and the book of Revelation, all have as their explicit basis and focus the ascended Lord Jesus and what his ascension means for the world and for his Church spiritually, liturgically, and dogmatically. Let us very briefly try to summarize this.
Jesus is Lord
The Son was always with the Father as God, but now, having united himself to our human nature, through his death and resurrection, he has ascended above all creation to reign over all things from the Throne of God in Heaven. This is precisely what the earliest Christian confession “Jesus is Lord” means: that the man Jesus of Nazareth, crucified in humility, is none other than the Son of God who, having been raised from the dead, is now seated at the right hand of the Father and reigns over all things in Heaven and on earth.
Jesus: The Lamb of God and Great High Priest
Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1.29), offered himself as the perfect and complete sacrifice for the sin of the world on the Cross. Risen from the dead in glory, He ascends into Heaven, into the true Temple and Holy of Holies, to enter into the presence of God with our glorified human nature. Thus is he the Great High Priest and liturgist (Heb 8.1-2) who, as “the offerer and the offered, the received and the received” (prayer of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom), reconciles God and man, Heaven and earth, and brings into communion all things that were once separated. This is the mystical and heavenly Liturgy of which our Liturgy is participates.
Jesus: The Head of His Body, the Church
Christ has taken human nature from the Mother of God not only to be “a man” but also to be “The Man”, the New Adam. In himself he has formed human nature anew to share in the glory and life of God. We are made participants in this new glorified and deified humanity - the Body of Christ - by the Holy Mysteries, most particularly by Baptism, Chrismation, and Holy Communion. Thus is Christ the Head of his Body, the Church, which in Heaven and on earth is being built up “till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph 4.13)
This far too brief summary can only begin to indicate the importance of the ascension of our Lord and what it means liturgically, spiritually, and dogmatically for us. Our whole life as members of his Body the Church is lived in obedience to his lordship and reign and as fellow ministers in the Heavenly Liturgy which he perpetually offers. Let us, then, on the feast of the Ascension and all the days of our life, lift up our hearts, awaiting in hope the coming of the Lord.
With love in Christ,
“Give me a word!”
Do you see then to what height of glory human nature has been raised? Is it not from earth to heaven? Is it not from corruption to incorruption? How hard would not someone toil in order to become the intimate friend of a corruptible king here below? But we, although we were alienated and hostile in our intent by evil deeds, have not only been reconciled to God the Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ, but we have also soared aloft to sonship, and now our nature is worshiped in the heavens by every creature seen and unseen. Such is the mighty work of the ineffable love for mankind of our good God….
+St Theodore the Studite
Amazing! Look again, whither He has raised the Church. As though He were lifting it up by some apparatus, He has raised it up to a vast height, and set it on yonder throne; for where the Head is, there is the body also. There is no interval of separation between the Head and the body; for were there a separation, then would the one no longer be a body, nor would the other any longer be a Head.
+St John Chrysostom