Someone once asked me why the Feast of the Ascension is not a fast day. Perplexed, I inquired why he thought such a feast should be a fast day. He replied: “Because the Lord left humanity on this day, so surely it is a day of sorrow”. It later struck me how many others do not recognise how joyful and important the Feast of the Ascension of Christ is.
In ascending to the heavenly Father, our Lord took with Him our human nature which He assumed for our salvation. Because He shares in our humanity, we share in His divinity; He is the first to ascend to God the Father in the flesh, thus paving the way for all of us. Because He became our brother, we are children of His Father:
“I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.” (John 20:17)
“I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.” (John 14:2-3).
Because Christ took flesh, died and rose in the body, and raised it up to heaven, we are able to follow Him to God the Father:
“When You came down from heaven to things on earth, and as God raised up with You Adam’s nature which lay below in the prison of Hades, You brought it to heaven by Your Ascension, O Christ, and made it sit with You on Your Father’s throne, for You are merciful and love mankind.” (Matins of the Ascension, Kathisma)
As St. Paul writes:
“Now this, “He ascended”—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things” (Eph. 4:9-10).
Far from being a day of sorrow, the Ascension is a feast of joy and eager anticipation. We cannot think of the Ascension without remembering that Christ is returning to the Father to pour the Holy Spirit upon us at Pentecost, ten days after Ascension Thursday:
“You were taken up in glory, Christ our God, giving joy to your Disciples by the promise of the Holy Spirit, when through the blessing they had been assured that you are the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world.” (Apolytikion of the Ascension)
“In ascending to heaven, O Lord, from where You also descended, do not leave us orphans; may Your Spirit come, bringing peace to the world; show to the sons of men Your powerful deeds, O Lord, for You love mankind.” (Vespers for Ascension Thursday, first hymn of the aposticha)
As our Lord said:
“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)
While the Ascension invites us to strengthen our preparation for Pentecost, at the same time it reminds us very strongly of our Lord’s Second Coming:
“Your Angels, O Lord, said to Your Apostles: Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up to heaven? This is Christ our God, who is taken up from you into heaven; He will come again in the same way that you have seen Him going to heaven [Acts 1:9-11]; serve Him in holiness and righteousness”. (Vespers for Ascension Thursday, third hymn of the aposticha)
This double preparation characterises the Feast of the Ascension: we prepare for the coming of the Holy Spirit while remembering also the Second Coming of Christ. As Christ ascends, not only are we reminded that He will come again, but through the Holy Spirit we are assured that “I am with you always, until the end of time” (Matt. 28:20):
“Abandoning on earth the things of the earth, leaving to the dust the things of the dust, let us now come to our senses and lift up our eyes and minds. O mortals, let our sight and all our senses fly to the gates of heaven. Let us imagine we are standing on the Mount of Olives, turning our gaze on the Redeemer, as He rides upon a cloud. For from where the Lord has hastened back to heaven, there too the Beneficent One has distributed His gifts to His Apostles, cherishing them as a father and confirming them, guiding them as sons and saying, ‘I am not parting from you. I am with you, and there is no one against you.’” (Matins of the Ascension, Ikos)