In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up, after He had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom He had chosen. To them He presented Himself alive after His passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God. And while staying with them He charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, He said, “you heard from Me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” So when they had come together, they asked Him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” And when He had said this, as they were looking on, He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as He went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath’s day’s journey away.
Today is the last day we will offer the greeting Christ is Risen, during this liturgical year. As the sun sets today, we will complete the Paschal season and begin the Feast of the Ascension. The next time we will greet each other with these words will be next year at the Resurrection service. Today is also the day that churches take their Paschal decorations down—the Resurrection banner will go away, the figure of Christ will go back up on the Cross, Easter lilies will be taken out, ribbons will be put back in the closet.
Should this day make us sad? There certainly might be a reason to feel a little sad as this joyous season comes to an end. But the answer to this question is, “no, we shouldn’t be sad.” At least, that’s what we read in the Book of Acts, on the Feast of the Ascension.
The first eight verses of Acts were read at the Paschal Divine Liturgy. The Book of Acts was authored by St. Luke, the author of the third Gospel, and was addressed, just as the Gospel was, to a figure named “Theophilus” in order to present to him “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1) and then to speak of what happened after the Resurrection and the Ascension. Jesus told His disciples that “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
Indeed what was about to happen was not the end of a story but the beginning of a bigger story. For the story in the Gospels is the story of one man, Jesus Christ, who came and changed the “world” in which He lived. He made a significant impact on a small group of people at one point in time. What would happen next would enable a significant number of people, first the disciples and eventually untold millions upon millions of people, to make a significant impact on the whole world for all time.
There is great joy when someone graduates from college. There is the ceremony, perhaps a party or two, gifts, cards, congratulations. And then at some point the celebration ends. What is the graduate left with? The cold, hard reality that the fun is over the real life is beginning? NO, the graduate is left with good memories of college, a sense of fulfillment for what has been achieved, a sense of joy for the celebration that was had, and a sense of anticipation for what is going to come next.
When Jesus ascended into heaven, the Disciples were looking up, watching a truly amazing scene. Their friend, their Lord, lifting off the earth, ascending into heaven. The clouds opening, the trumpets of angels blaring. It was quite the contrast to the quiet birth in the manger that happened almost anonymously.
I’d imagine that their emotions were certainly mixed. Their might have been some uncertainty, even some sadness, as Jesus ascended in glory into the heavens. Immediately, however, His voice came to them in a most reassuring manner, as “two men stood by them in white robes and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you to heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.” (1: 10-11)
Jesus had told them to wait for power form on high, and so they returned Jerusalem, not sad, but eagerly anticipating what power was going to be given them. And we’re not using “power” like money or fame power, but power from the Holy Spirit. Just like the college graduate believes he or she will do great things, but doesn’t know what they are, the disciples believed they would do great things, by the grace of God. The disciples, we are told, journeyed back to Jerusalem, eager for the next step that God had in His plan for them.
As we bid farewell to the Paschal season, and greet each other one final time with the words, “Christos Anesti,” “Christ is Risen”, we should not say them with sadness but with joy. Like Christ’s Apostles, we have been given much work to do. We’ve had the journey of Great Lent where we reflected and hopefully made some spiritual strides. We have had the joy of the Resurrection and hopefully have kept up our new habits. Now, as we celebrate the Ascension, it is time to turn our attention to the Lord’s work, spreading His gospel “to the end of the earth.” (1:8)
There is also no need to be sad, because we will greet each other again, soon enough with the words “Christ is Risen” and until we do, we will carry this message of joy in our hearts always. For if words help us embed their content in our hearts, having proclaimed Christ Risen from the dead is something that should be now firmly embedded in our hearts, so that we will be filled with joy continually, until the day we greet each other with these words again next year.
You ascended in glory, O Christ our God, after You filled the Disciples with joy, by promising to send them the Holy Spirit, and You blessed them and established their faith, that You are the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world. (Apolytikion of Ascension, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen! May our Risen Lord bring us with health and joy to greet each other with these words next year on Pascha!