Perhaps nothing in the Christian Church has been more misunderstood in the modern age than the Ascension. In an age when “up” literally did mean “heaven,” the Ascension made sense. Today, scenes of Jesus jet-packing into the clouds merely evoke giggles, and rightly so. Interestingly, the lack of realism in icons makes this less of a problem. Once you know that the unearthly mandorla represents heaven (here, the concentric blue circles around Christ), the icon can be taken at face value… not Jesus “going up” into the skies literally, but the glorification of Christ in heaven.
The Ascension happened some time after the resurrection when the appearances of the risen Christ had largely ceased. The apostles gathered with the Theotokos in prayer, Christ and His angels appeared and our Lord Himself then radiantly disappeared from their sight. Perhaps even the Scriptures do not imply a literal “cloud,” (Acts 1:9). When the Jews talked of the divine glory in the Old Testament they frequently spoke of a radiant cloud, the shekinah. So according to this understanding, Jesus at the Ascension was glorified and received into heaven. This was the necessary prelude to the gift of the Holy Spirit. With the ascent of One came the descent of the Other.
At Ascension-tide we are also invited to focus on our own destiny and not just the lifting up of Christ. The key to this may be found in the 17th Chapter of the Gospel of St. John when Our Lord prays the so-called High Priestly prayer together with his disciples before he goes to his death. These passages anticipate the Ascension, which is not otherwise recorded in St. John’s Gospel.
1 Jesus spoke these words, lifted up His eyes to heaven, and said: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You, 2 as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. 4 I have glorified You on the earth. I have finished the work which You have given Me to do. 5 And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.
24 “Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.
In St. John’s Gospel, the hour of glory refers to the Lord’s death but in this gospel it is also taken to include - on the resurrection side - the appearances of Christ, the gift of the Holy Spirit and the Ascension. The events are not separated out chronologically (as in St. Luke’s Gospel) but rather telescoped together in the Paschal period itself.
Now the glory from the Father belongs to Christ ... but not to Christ alone. Listen to St. Paul ...
18 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. [2 Corinthians 3:18]
.. and the definitive text comes from St. Peter who himself had witnessed the Lord’s glory before… on the Mount of the Transfiguration.
4 by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. [2 Peter 1:4]
Here then is the neglected truth, arguably the most important truth about salvation for it speaks of the goal of our Christian lives, our glorification in Christ, our own ascension. Sometimes this is called “theosis” in the Orthodox Church or deification.
St. Athanasius said that “God became Man so that man might become god.” In this we do not become God by a change in our nature but rather by a participation in His energies by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Mother of God was the first to ascend, the first to be glorified at her Dormition. We are called to follow her in our own ascension. We may only do so according to the measure of our repentance in this life for it is only repentance that makes us “light enough” to ascend. So, unencumbered by our sins, which will gradually wither and fall away, we shall be raised up into the fullness of life, which is God and His Love.