In the Orthodox Church, the 40th day after Easter is celebrated as the day marking Christ’s ascension into heaven. The emphasis of this commemoration is our assurance not only that Jesus is truly the Son of God, but that he has not left his disciples without hope.
In the Gospel reading for this Great Feast, the Scriptures record:
“Now as they said these things, Jesus Himself stood in the midst of them, and said to them, ‘Peace to you. . . . Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high.’
And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. Now it came to pass, while He blessed them, that He was parted from them and carried up into heaven. And they worshiped Him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising and blessing God.” —Luke 24:36–53 (NKJV)
The message Christ gave his apostles
The message of Christ to his apostles was one of peace; one of both reassurance and a promise of future blessing. In the wake of Christ’s ascension, the apostles were left with “great joy” and inspired unto worship. The departure hymn (“Apolytikion” in Greek) for the evening before this feast reminds us of the great assurances of God:
“O Christ our God, You ascended in Glory and gladdened Your disciples by the promise of the Holy Spirit. Your blessing assured them that You are the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world.”
When they first beheld the risen Christ, the apostles were troubled in their hearts. They didn’t immediately realize the glory of what had taken place, and their faithfulness to the Lord was not in vain. In turn, our Lord promised to send them a great Helper and Comforter: the Holy Spirit.
This is why, some 10 days later (June 23 this year), the Orthodox Church also commemorates the glorious feast of Pentecost. It was on this day nearly 2,000 years ago that the promises of the now-risen Christ were fully realized in the apostles’ midst. The message of Pentecost is largely a reversal of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1–9): a reversal of the curse of confusion and the dawn of a new age of harmony and peace through the unity of the Spirit (1 Cor. 14:33).
The success of the Gospel, and the power of the Spirit
In our departure hymn for Pentecost, we are also reminded that the success of the Gospel is dependent upon the power of the Spirit, and not the cunning or wisdom of man alone (cf. 1 Cor. 2:5):
“Blessed art Thou, O Christ our God, Who hast shown forth the fishermen as supremely wise by sending down upon them the Holy Spirit, and through them didst draw the world into Thy net. O Befriender of man, glory be to Thee.”
It is by the Holy Spirit that fishermen could be made into apostles, and that the stumbling block to the Jews and the scandal of the Greeks could serve to transform the world.
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