What does it mean to be “ascended”? We need to know because as surely as Christ ascended, so shall we in Him also ascend. Perhaps it means the same as resurrection? Well there is a connection, but, no, it does not mean the same thing. The connection is that Christ was raised from the dead in order that he might ascend to the Father. In his risen state Christ did not “stick around” as it were indefinitely here on earth. There yet remained one great thing for him to do to seal our salvation ... to ascend to the throne of God with our glorified humanity and for that he needed to leave so that the Holy Spirit could come.
Now in common western non-Orthodox parlance this ascension means the same as “go to heaven” in the simple sense of “life after death.” That is a simple truth in one sense but a very inadequate understanding of “ascension” from an Orthodox point of view, for we believe that the process of transformation into our ascended state has started right here and now ... even while we are still alive.
Ascension is no less than the life of the Kingdom of God, breaking through into this corrupt world order and remaking it from within. The final victory shall be when death itself is destroyed but ascension is much more even than this defeat of death. It is the life of God in believers and in the Cosmos made possible by the resurrection. St. Paul talks of this process of transformation in these terms ...
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)
In the icons of our Church we see this glory ... both two dimensional icons and three dimensional icons of God ... that is, you and me, members of the Body of Christ. In the two dimensional icon, both the nimbus around the head and the gold or bright background show that the saint has already begun to participate in the very life of God the Blessed Trinity. In the three dimensional icons of the faithful we can see the Holy Spirit presently at work with the same effect.
An ascended, or rather ascending person may be recognised in the following ways:-
1. They are concerned to please God in all things and fear not the opinions of men when contrary to the law of God.
2. They have a true love for Christ and seek to follow him unreservedly being detached from worldly cares and concerns.
3. They are men and women of prayer, being sustained by both the Word of God and the Sacraments of the Church.
4. They have a deep abiding peace and love and joy in their hearts which are the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s transformative work.
5. They do the work of God and through their service miracles of divine love and power happen daily.
6. They do not fear death but rather see sacrificial love both in life and death as God’s growing fullness for their emptiness.
If this isn’t a new ascending humanity, a New Creation overtaking even the profound changes evolution itself, I don’t know what is. Moreover, by the grace of God it lies within the reach of us all. What we need to do to ascend is to lay hold of God and cleave to Him, more resolutely, more lovingly, more sacrificially day by day. In no way must we let our love grow cold but rather seek the outpouring of the Spirit that we might become “little-Christs” – icons of God, even saints. What a great dignity God has bestowed upon us. Let us rejoice in the Gift!