“Thou hast ascended in glory bringing joy to Thy disciples with the promise of the Holy Spirit, O Lord! Glory to Thee!”
I find it odd that the great and joyful feast of the Ascension is often not well attended by our faithful. Understandably they are yet not over the euphoria of Pascha. Even forty days is not ample time to greet one’s friends and family with the joy of the Resurrection of Christ, and maybe some of the paschal foods have yet to be consumed. Also, Holy Pentecost is only ten days away. Still, no other feast of the church year so epitomizes our present state than that of the Ascension.
We are living in a condition between events. The Lord Jesus has already been on earth. He announced Himself on Palm Sunday, spending each weekday in the temple precincts preaching, teaching, healing, and showing by example what God had intended when the Trinity created the human being, only to be arrested, tried, crucified and glorified. As He proclaimed from the Cross, “It is accomplished.” No, Satan had not been obliterated—that’s not the way God works—but like a wild animal driven back into a cave by brandishing a flaming torch, the decisive battle with the evil one was achieved. Once defeated, the devil need have no hold over us unless we permit him to do so.
After that the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to the Church and Christ’s apostles on Holy Pentecost. The Advocate shall descend on the faithful as an aperitif of our life in the Spirit. That event lies ahead, ten days hence. We shall live by the Spirit, because we already walk in the Spirit(Galatians 5:25)—another instance of “already” and “not yet:” Already we had through the experience of the Upper Room that first day of the week received the Holy Spirit when the Lord Jesus “breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven’” (John 20:22). Then the Spirit came upon the Church as the seal and guardian of grace. On Pentecost, the Spirit came upon them again as individual agents of holiness, commissioning them with the mission to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
Study the icons of the two feasts. Unlike their orderly and somewhat stolid seating across from one another on the Pentecost icon, you will find in the Ascension icon that the apostles appear somewhat disorganized, standing on the Mount of Olives. Some stare into the clouds, other discuss the meaning of the event—in a word, much like any who live by faith, never doubting, continually advancing, and always obeying the One who invited them to “Follow Me.” Just as they had followed Him down the hillside from Bethany into Jerusalem, so they are climbing the same hill, trailing behind Him until they are left on their own no longer to walk behind Him, but alongside His constant albeit invisible presence, inviting all who will listen to accept the Lord’s invitation to His Father’s Kingdom.
It would seem to me that we would identify with the apostles on the Ascension icon more than with any other time frame. Our lives are between births—from our mothers’ wombs through the tombs and into a new birth in the Kingdom of heaven. Whatever stage we find ourselves—from the cradle to the schoolhouse, from children to teenagers, from the teen years to college and the job scene, from dating to marriage, from parenthood to empty nest, from retirement to the conclusion of life—there is never a time when we can assume or even pretend that we’re here on earth to stay. Or maybe we just prefer to ignore the reality that we’re always “on the way.”