Thursday, June 9, 2016

Fr Georges Massouh on the Ascension

Arabic original here.

God Humanized and Man Divinized

Tomorrow, the Orthodox Church will celebrate the Thursday of the Divine Ascension, Christ's ascension into heaven forty days after His resurrection from the dead. It is noteworthy that until the fourth century, the Church combined this feast with the Feast of Pentecost on one day, commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles fifty days after Easter. The Church of Jerusalem, however, started a tradition that was very rapidly adopted by the other churches, separating the Feasts of Ascension and Pentecost and making them independent of each other.

When did the ascension happen? The Holy Evangelist Luke mentions the ascension in two different places in his writings: in the last chapter of his gospel and in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. In the gospel, Luke mentions that Christ ascended on the same day that He rose. After appearing to the disciples, "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" (Luke 24:50-51). In the Book of Acts, Luke mentions that Jesus showed Himself to to His disciples to be alive after His passion with many proofs and that He appeared to them for forty days, speaking to them of many things pertaining to the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3) and He "was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight" (Acts 1:9).

Is there a contradiction in Luke's two accounts with regard to the time of the ascension? Can the writer fall into a gross error that would make it impossible to believe entire gospel from a to z? So then, did the ascension happen on the very day of the resurrection or on the fortieth day after the resurrection? There is no doubt that Luke, the Syrian, Antiochian physician, did not fall into a contradiction, but rather distinguished between the two things: the time of the ascension that took place on the day of the resurrection on the one hand, and the forty-day period during which Christ continued to appear to His disciples on the other hand.

The fact of the matter is that in the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, the number forty is a symbolic number indicating the holy time in preparation for a significant event. So in his two texts, Luke wanted to stress that the cross, the resurrection and the ascension all three constitute a single event that happened all at once, while at the same time he wanted to affirm that Christ appeared to His disciples for forty days so that they would be completely sure of His resurrection and in order to prepare them for a new time through His presence among them before He was lifted up to heaven.

The Orthodox Church believes that the event of Christ the Lord's ascension to heaven and sitting at the right hand of God the Father is just one link in an unbreakable chain reaching from the Word of God's becoming human to His crucifixion, to His resurrection from the dead to His ascension to His sending the Holy Spirit into the world. The purpose of all these events is the inauguration of a new covenant that God Himself initiated so that man may receive eternal life in the presence and company of God. This new covenant is established on a series of divine condescensions required by God's infinite love for humankind. The the Word of God's becoming human is nothing other than a condescension that God undertook in order to share in man's created nature. His passion, crucifixion and death are another condescension... In the ascension, divine-human communion was affirmed, that which God has initiated from the first creation of man until the last day. In man there is a divine presence and in God, by virtue of His becoming human, there came to be a human presence. The importance of this event lies in that the human nature that was taken by God the Word, true God, is seated at the right hand of God in heaven. Human nature came to be present in God Himself and became capable of eternal salvation.

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