10. THE ASCENSION
The Ascension is the crowning event of Christ's redemptive opus, and the triumphant pinnacle of everything that he Lord did for the sake of mankind. The hymn of this feast-day succinctly describes the importance of the event: " Having fulfilled every providence that was destined for us, and having united the celestial with all that is on earth, You ascended in glory, o Christ our Lord, nowhere separated from anyone, forever non-dimensional, and calling out to all who love You: ' I am with you, therefore no-one is against you '". In other words, Christ -who is our God- ascended to the heavens in glory, when -according to the divine plan- He had completed and fulfilled all the things that He intended for us. They were the things that united the earth with the heavens, and mortals with God. Naturally, the Ascension did not signify the parting of the Lord with His beloved disciples. He remains constantly united with them, according to His promise: " behold, I am with you every single day, until the end of time. Amen. " (Matthew, 28, 20)
After His ascension to the heavens, the Lord's work was -and still is- continued by the Church. With the power that she was endowed with by her Founder, she teaches, she works miracles, and she sanctifies and saves the faithful. Through the Church and within the Church, the faithful are in union with their Leader.
The Lord spoke to His disciples regarding the Church, every time He appeared to them during the forty days after His Resurrection. He promised them the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit; He commissioned them to spread the Gospel to all of creation, to proclaim His Resurrection and to invite people to repent for their sinful ways. Those who would willingly believe, could become members of His Church through the sacrament of Holy Baptism. " Having said these things, He was raised aloft before their very eyes, and a cloud then took Him away from their eyes; And as they stood watching Him moving heavenward, behold, two figures (angels) stood before them in white robes, who said: 'You men of Galilee, why are you staring at the sky? This Jesus, who has ascended from you up towards the heavens, will come again, in the same way that you saw Him moving towards heaven'. After this, they returned to Jerusalem, from the mount known as the Mount of Olives ." (Acts, 1, 9-12)
The Church that the Lord referred to prior to His Ascension, and the scene of the Ascension itself, are the two themes that appear in the icon of the Ascension. Given that the Holy Bible contains more verses pertaining to the things that the Lord said about the Church, and fewer verses about the actual event of the Ascension, the Byzantine hagiographer acts accordingly. He allocates more space for the main theme, which is taken up by the disciples and the Holy Mother (virtually the members of the Church of Christ ), while the ascending Christ takes up a much smaller space at the top of the icon.
Because the Ascension took place on the Mount of Olives -according to the biblical text- which was located east of Jerusalem and was densely wooded by olive trees during ancient times, the icon's scenery is accordingly a mountainous one, with olive trees growing between the rocks.
Having examined the information that the Holy Bible provides us on the Ascension of our Lord, and how this information has been transferred to appear in the relative icon by the orthodox hagiographer, we shall now examine the two sections of the icon. " We must remain in silent contemplation, before the icon itself speaks to us. We must surrender to its graceful appearance, which will gradually lead us to the heart of its message. This composition, with its austere yet intense lyric form, is a miracle of harmony, where every single detail chants to us. In its wholeness, it is set free and is submitted to a unique musical symphony: 'Let us raise up our hearts'." (P. Evdokimov)
Description of the icon. a) The ascended Lord. In the icon of the Ascension, the Lord wearing lucid robes and in a dominant pose, is depicted "in glory" which sometimes has a circular shape - as in our icon- and sometimes an elliptical shape. He is seated on a rainbow, blessing with His one hand and holding a scroll in the other. The scroll is the symbol of a Master.
The "glory" in which the Lord appears, is supported by two angels. They symbolize and express divine majesty and authority. (As an almighty Lord, He has no actual need of angels in order to ascend to the heavens). In certain icons of the Ascension, the angels do not hold up the disc of glory, but instead, they are looking at the Lord, in a praying position. As the feast-day's hymns tell us, the angels display wonder and admiration, because Christ ascended to the heavens not only as a God, but as a human also; in other words, with His incorruptible and glorified body.
Elsewhere, angels are portrayed with trumpets, proclaiming according to the verse of Psalm 46,6: " God ascended among loud cries; The Lord ascended amid the voices of trumpets ". This verse is quoted in full, in the Ascension hymnology, because " the ascent of the Lord to the heavens is signified by them (the words of the Psalm)" (Athanasios the Great, LGF 32, 116).
b) The Apostles. Separated into two groups, with the Holy Mother in the center, " they observe the ascending Lord with gestures and poses that denote surprise, perplexity, daze and agitation ." Behind her are two white-robed angels who are pointing at the ascending Lord with their arms raised. As messengers of God, they are reassuring and consoling everyone there that the Lord will appear again, during His Second Coming.
In the texts of the Bible (Luke 24, 50-52 and Acts 1, 9-11) that refer to the Ascension, the Theotokos is not mentioned among those who witnessed the event. We are informed of her presence by our sacred tradition, just as we see her mentioned in the Vespers hymns of the feast-day and the eve of that day: " It is proper, that the mother who was the most pain-stricken of all people during Your Passions, should partake of exceeding joy at this glorification of Your flesh ". The Theotokos' place and her stance in the icon are two noteworthy points. She is positioned exactly underneath her Son and she comprises the axis of the entire composition. " The vertical line between the Saviour's head and the head of the Theotokos divides the overall picture exactly into two similar-sized sections; it also bisects a horizontal line, thus forming a perfect Cross ." (P Evdokimov) The apostles with their gestures and their heads turned towards the Lord are in contrast to the undisturbed and tranquil form of the Theotokos. Her tranquility, as mentioned, expresses the unalterable truth of the Church. The hagiographer of this icon wished to portray the Church with his depiction of the apostles encircling the Theotokos; this is the Church to which The Lord would be sending the Holy Spirit on the Pentecost (50 th ) day, in order to bring it to life and to mobilize it. The hymns of the Ascension Day make mention of the dispatching of the Holy Spirit to the disciples and Its presence in this world: " You were lifted up in glory, o king of Angels, so that You might send us the Paraclete ( the Holy Spirit, the 'Consoler' ) from the Father ." (ode 4) Thus, the two world-saving and world-shaking events of the Ascension and the Pentecost are indissolubly related to each other.
To the right of the Theotokos, the first person looking up at the sky with his hands over his face, is the apostle Paul. In actual fact, he has no place amongst the other disciples, because his conversion took place after the Lord's Ascension. He is placed only symbolically in the icon. He later becomes a member of the Church, and a select member at that. The orthodox hagiographer has plucked Paul out of his time, and has numbered him amongst the apostles. In this way, Judas' vacant place has been substituted and the representation of the Church in this icon has thus become dynamic, expressive and symbolic.
The hands of the Theotokos that are raised in supplication remind us of her role beside her Son. It is she who beseeches and intermediates for us. As our Church hymn says: " we the sinners have no-one else to perpetually mediate to God, in times of danger and in times of sorrow ." We implore Christ to save us and to show us His charity " through the embassies of the Most Immaculate Lady Theotokos and ever-virginal Maria "
In the icon, the Theotokos is portrayed upright and unbending. With this rigidity, she is denoting the immovable dogmas of the Church. On the other hand, the apostles with their assorted gestures symbolize the various languages and the variety of means by which the word of the Lord is sown in the hearts of people.
It was beautifully observed, that: " A sense of peace, prayer and laudation permeates everything, because, wherever the head is, that is where the body's joyful hopes are situated ." As the holy Pope Leo I (440-461 A.D.) had said: " The resurrection of Christ is also our own uplifting, and wherever the glory of the Head has moved to, that is where the body's hope is invited ."