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THE ASCENSION OF JESUS
FEAST DAY: 40 days after Easter
Icon: It is painted with bright colours of gold, red, and blue and is a joy to behold. The central detail is Jesus seated―to sit at the right hand of the Father― and enthroned in the mandorla (round shape) with angels ascending into heaven, taken up from His mother and the Apostles. Jesus blesses those assembled with His right hand and in His left hand is a scroll, the symbol of teaching and knowledge. The icon expresses the sovereignty of Jesus; He is the head of the Church; He leads it, and He is the source of its teachings. He guides and blesses the Church, and the Apostles who will continue his ministry and fulfil the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Theotokos stands directly underneath Jesus in the centre. Her hand gestures in prayer. In contrast to the Apostles, she is still and peaceful on a pedestal, signifying her honourable position. She has a halo around her head signifying that while the Apostles wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost), she has already been chosen by God and the Holy Spirit is with her.
Two angels stand on either side of the Theotokos, holding scrolls. The scrolls tell the account of the Ascension, ‘Ye men of Galilee why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who is taken up from you into heaven shall come again in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven’ (Acts 1:11). Thus, foretelling the Second Coming of Christ. The Theotokos and the Apostles represent the Church waiting for the Holy Spirit to descend.
The Apostles are on either side of the Theotokos―six on the left and six on the right. St Peter is on her left, and St Paul on her right. The Apostles are looking up and gesture in amazement at Jesus ascending. St Paul shields his eyes with his right hand recalling his being blinded by the light of Christ on the road to Damascus.
Jesus ascended before St Paul converted to Christianity, but he is included for an important theological reason. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended not only on the Apostles present, but also the whole Church across the world. St Paul's presence signifies the completeness of the Church. Another reason he is included is that just before the Ascension, Jesus commanded His Apostles to "go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15). St Paul, by his preaching brought innumerable people to Christianity which is why He is called God’s chosen vessel and the Chief of the Apostles.
The Feast of the Ascension is always celebrated on a Thursday. The Ascension tends to be diminished in the Eastern and Western Churches because of the celebrations of Easter which is before it and Pentecost which is after it. Nonetheless, the Ascension is important for our understanding of the mystery of our salvation and of what is to come in God’s plan for us.
Jesus ascended into heaven 40 days after His Resurrection at Easter. The Ascension delivers hope that a place has been prepared for us in the Kingdom of God. Therefore, as Melkites we commemorate the death of our loved ones, with the offering of the 40-day mass. The Ascension marks the end of Jesus’ time on earth. He physically leaves this world, not by dying again, but by being, taken up, into heaven. He had not risen at Easter, to resume the life of men on earth, he arose fully human but in a glorified, immortal, and incorruptible body and ascended into heaven and as we profess in the Creed, is now seated at the right hand of the Father. The Ascension is the first time, a human body is glorified in the presence of God.
Yet Jesus, promises to never leave us and says he will always be present to us, “I will not leave you orphans” (John 14:18). His presence, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is the Church. He is with us when we gather to worship. We experience Him in the Divine Liturgy, in the Scriptures which are read, and in the Eucharist, as we share in His eternal sacrifice.
When we stand in our Melkite Church and look up, we see the image of Christ in glory, the icon of the Christ Pantocrator, in the dome or another prominent place. Placing this icon in the domes of our Churches is a poignant reminder that “This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
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