In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!
We keep today the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord: the day when, according to Luke’s account (and only Luke’s, though both in the Gospel and Acts), forty days after his resurrection from the dead, Jesus ascended into the heavens and is seated at the right-hand of the Father…: and also ten days before Pentecost, the Feast of the Coming of the Holy Spirit, the Paraklete, the Comforter. But what does this feast mean? It is, I think, all too easy to think of it as, essentially, the end of Our Lord’s earthly life, the definitive end—for his death was not the end, but was followed by his resurrection and his appearing to the apostles. The end, in fact, of a sequence that goes back to his birth, if not the Annunciation to the Virgin Mother of God of his conception and birth nine months previous: a sequence that continues with the events of his birth, his life and ministry of preaching and healing, the confrontation with the authorities in Jerusalem, his arrest, trial, and death, followed by his resurrection and appearances to the apostles, and now his ascension, which marks the end of all that. He ‘came down from heaven, and was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary…crucified, suffered, and was buried, rose again on the third day… and ascended into heaven’: so the Creed. The story of one who came down from heaven, and then returned. All in the past. The trouble with this way of thinking is not that it is wrong, but that it is in danger of missing the point. It is assimilating the story of Jesus to the myths of the gods—whether Greek or Norse, or what you will—gods who live in heaven, but take part in the earthly life of mortals, so that the divine and the human are entwined in some way. ‘Immortals, mortals; mortals, immortals; living their death, dying their life’, as the Greek philosopher Herakleitos put it: Herakleitos, the ‘dark one’, the obscure one. It all sounds very similar to what we Christians believe, but the resemblance is seductive: the gods are immortal, they cannot die; humans are mortal, they can, and do, die. Gods may appear in human form, usually for some nefarious reason, but they don’t die as humans, they can’t. We call this way of thinking mythological: they are stories, not historically true, but which tell us something important about human life and its entanglement with the divine. We Christians believe that God is—not just immortal—but eternal, or even pre-eternal, προαιώνιος (‘before the ages’, as Fr Ephrem translates it); that in the Incarnation God became human—not just appeared to be human—and encountered death and died, but that in this encounter between the eternal God and death, death was destroyed: ‘When you went down to death, o immortal life, then you slew Hell with the lightning flash of your Godhead’. This is not a myth; it is the very truth! But we easily slip back into a mythological way of thinking.
It is encouraged by our speaking of the ‘ascension’: the Greek word for the feast is Ἀνάληψις, better translated ‘assumption’, being received up, not going up. A mythological way of thinking about Christ’s incarnation insinuates that the eternal Word of God really lives in time analogous with the time we experience, and then spent thirty years or so of that time amongst us: which has come to an end with the Ascension. One of the kathismata at Orthros puts it all rather differently:
God, who is before the ages and without beginning, assumed human nature, mystically making it divine, today has been assumed. Angels run ahead of him, showing to the apostles how he goes into heaven with great glory. Worshipping him, they say, Glory to God in his assumption.
God assumed, took up, human nature in the Incarnation, and thereby deified it, now he himself, united to this human nature, is taken up into the heavens. It is not the end of his earthly life, but the fulfilment of his human life; it is not the end, but the beginning. As the kontakion puts it:
When you had fulfilled your dispensation for us, and united things on earth with things in heaven, you were taken up in glory, Christ our God; in no way divided, but remaining inseparable, you cried out to those who loved you: I am with you, and there is no one against you.
In the Incarnation, the Word of God, who is before the ages and without beginning, assumes human nature: takes it up into himself and makes it divine. In the Assumption, he is himself assumed, with his human nature, into the heavens. In that human nature—our human nature, which he received from the Virgin Mother of God—we, too, are present at the right hand of the Father. ‘Things on earth are united with things in heaven’: that is the point of the Feast.
In the icon of the Feast—it is an ancient icon, found as an illustrated page in the Rabula Gospel Book, so sixth-century, if not earlier—there are two points of focus: at the bottom of the icon the apostles with the Mother of God in the centre seem to be bounded by a circle, as they gaze upwards… to the other focus of the icon, our Lord sitting in glory and blessing us, being lifted up by the angels into heaven. Two circles, one with the Mother of God at the centre, the other with Christ: two circles, not opposed, but reflected in each other, as if Christ’s words of blessing were those of the kontakion: ‘I am with you, and there is no one against you’.
If we really take this in, then everything changes, but our ingrained mythological way of thinking keeps on tripping us up. After the Creed in the Divine Liturgy, there is an exclamation: ‘Let us stand with awe, let us stand with fear, let us attend, that we may offer the holy oblation in peace!’ Then after a blessing, the priest says to the people: Ἄνα σχῶμεν τὰς καρδίας, in Latin: Sursum corda—let our hearts be up/be on high, to which you reply: We have them with the Lord, Ἔχομεν πρὸς τὸν Κύριον. The first English translation of that was Cranmer’s in the Book of Common Prayer: Lift up your hearts/We lift them up to the Lord. There is no ‘lifting’ in the Greek: Let our hearts be on high/We have them with the Lord. We say that because of the Ascension, the Assumption of Christ: our hearts are with the Lord, the Lord has taken them there with his glorified human nature; as Paul says, ‘for you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God’. This is fact, not myth. It is this we celebrate today in the Feast of the Ascension, of the taking up, the Assumption, of Christ into the heavens, thus ‘uniting things on earth with things in heaven’. Amen.