And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.
Ascension Day is possibly the most forgotten of the great feasts of the Lord. Why? In part because, unlike all the other feasts of the same rank, it can never fall on a Saturday or Sunday. Forty days after Pascha is always a Thursday, and midweek services during the Paschal season are not very popular.
Not only is this feast neglected, though, it is often mischaracterized as one of emptiness, a feast of absence and waiting. It is sometimes described, even in sermons and articles, as an “in-between” feast, an awkward nine days in which, while we must sadly give up the triumphant hymns of Pascha, still we are not yet granted the verdant warmth of the Holy Spirit. It’s seen as a corridor joining two spacious and beautiful halls, but itself containing little that is noteworthy, aside from the virtues of patience and hope.
To be sure, this is a feast of patience and hope. The hymns in the Pentecostarion bear witness to this, as do the parting words of the Lord to his disciples: “Stay in Jerusalem until you are clothed with power from on high” (Lk. 24:49). Yet according to the Scriptures, they returned to Jerusalem “with great joy” (ibid., v. 52). Theirs was not the sorrow of abandoned children but the joy of those who knew their master to be exalted and glorified, who saw the resurrection take on a greater fullness than it had had during the forty days since Christ’s arising.
Enlightened by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Apostles came to see the Ascension as the key that opens up the mystery of our salvation. They preached and wrote about it constantly. But in the Church today it is referred to rarely if ever throughout the year. We will take the Apostles as our guides as we endeavor to enrich our somewhat meager conception of this great act of redemption.