Ascension and Promised Return
What God has done is not complete without the Ascension, and the promised return which is implicit in Jesus’ exaltation: “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11b). At the climax of the Divine Liturgy, just after we hear Jesus’ words regarding the bread and cup, the priest, celebrating on our behalf, prefaces the offering with these words: “Remembering, therefore, this saving commandment and all that has been done for our sake: the Cross, the tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the enthronement at the right hand, and the second and glorious coming again…” It is with all these mighty divine acts in mind, that we say “thine own of thine own we offer thee...” We remember in our offering and thanksgiving (Eucharist) all that has been done for us*—including the Ascension and “the second and glorious coming again.” This raises two immediate questions: How is it that the Ascension has been done for us? And how can we speak about the future coming as done?
The second question is the hardest, in terms of logic. We might say that “remember” here simply means “to keep in mind that it has been promised” —remembering the assurance that Jesus will return. But, in the context of the Divine Liturgy, this is not enough. For in worship, we are actually connected with heavenly things and with the new creation. Having entered into worship with the angels, the Theotokos, and the saints, we find ourselves in a place where Jesus is present, in which his Coming is not simply a promise, but a reality. From God’s perspective, this has been accomplished, though we await it in this mixed place, where Christ’s reign has been inaugurated, while other things must still happen in time and in space. The Liturgy puts us in an utterly mysterious position: we are not simply practicing to be in the direct presence of God but are there. The good news includes an assurance that God is not confined by time and space but redeems that which we experience as limitations.
As for the Ascension being done for our sake, this may seem strange to some. There are some for whom the Ascension is simply a necessary event to return Jesus to his true home—the heavens, from which He came for our sake. From this perspective, the Incarnation, teaching, Crucifixion, and Resurrection were done for us; and then He returns, his work well done. But such a view ignores Jesus’ own words regarding the efficacy of the Ascension: “it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7). So, the “going away” is for our benefit, to help us, part of the good news. After all, it is connected with the gift of the Holy Spirit: Jesus’ glorification is the flip-side of our being endowed with gifts (Eph 4:8).
Why? We need to banish from our minds the idea that the Ascension is the undoing of the Incarnation. Jesus retains his human nature eternally and takes it with him as He is exalted on high. Just as the High Priest in the Old Testament wore upon his breast the names of the tribes of Israel, so Jesus takes us with him as a gift to the Father. The Ascension is not simply the enthronement of God the Son—it is the means of our glorification as his Body! St. John Chrysostom, in his inimitable way, shows us how the Ascension is the seal of the Gospel, the picture of our being reconciled to God, the “gospel” proclaimed in the very highest key. Note how the Golden-Mouthed preacher ties together the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus with the glorification (theosis) of the faithful, the glory of the Gospel. This he does while echoing much of Hebrews, and also dipping into Genesis, Psalms, Isaiah, Luke, and Romans:
So that you may learn that He did not hate our nature, but that He was turning away evil…. [Remember that] we who appeared to be unworthy of the earth, were this day [through his Ascension] brought up to the heavens. For we, who from the beginning were not even worthy of what was below, have come up to the kingdom on high; we have gone beyond the heavens; we have grasped hold of the royal throne.
Even that very [human] nature, on account of which the Cherubim had to guard Paradise, this day is seated above the Cherubim! But how has this great wonder happened? …how did we come up to such a height?...
For this is the wonderful thing: that it wasn’t we who had grown unjustly angry with God who made the appeal, but that One who was justly vexed, who called us to His side, who entreated us, so that there was peace… And this is also what Christ did. God was angry with us, for we were turning away from God, our human-loving Master. Christ, by putting Himself in the middle, exchanged and reconciled each nature to the other. And how did He put himself in the middle? He Himself took on the punishment that was due to us from the Father and endured both the punishment from there and the reproaches from here…
You have seen how He received from on high the punishment that had to be borne! Look how also from below He received the insults that had to be borne: “The reproaches of those who reproached you,” Scripture says, “have fallen upon me.” Haven’t you seen how He dissolved the enmity, how He did not depart before doing all, both suffering and completing the whole business, until He brought up the one who was both hostile and at war—brought that one up to God Himself, and he made him a friend?
And of these good things, this very day [the Feast of the Ascension] is the foundation. Receiving, as it were, the first fruits of our nature, He bore it up in this way to the Master. And indeed, just as it happens in the case of plains that bear ears of corn, it happens here. Somebody takes a few ears, and making a little handful, offers it to God, so that because of the little amount, He blesses the whole land. Christ also did this: through that one flesh and “firstfruits,” He made to be blessed our [whole] race…. Therefore, He offered up the first-fruits of our nature to the Father, and the Father was so amazed with the offering, both because of the worthiness of the One who offered and because of the blamelessness of the offering, that He received the gift with His hands that belonged, as it were, to the same household as the Son. And He placed the Offering close to Himself, saying, “Sit at my right hand!”1
In this splendid passage, the Golden-Mouthed preacher is expounding the Ascension for the feast day. However, in explaining its power, he also describes Christ’s sacrifice in terms of representative atonement, as an effective means of reconciliation, and as a triumphant offering of thanks and obedience, when he presents the first-fruits of our risen human nature to the Father. All this is done for our sake, with the promise that when He comes again, we will be in harmony with him, for our estrangement has been removed, and reconciliation has been accomplished. The “good news” therefore entails our complete transformation.
St. John Chrysostom, S. in Ascensionem D.N.J.C., (“Sermon on the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ”). The Greek is in Patrologia Graeca, Migne 50.444-446; Author’s translation. ↩