Celebration Of The Ascension
In Church Theology
Father Matta El-Meskeen (Matthew the Poor)
THE FIRST THING THAT DRAWS OUR ATTENTION to the theological relationship between the Ascension and the Church is this verse in the book of Hebrews:
“Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way (that did not exist before) which he opened for us through the veil, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest …” (Heb 10: 19-21)
We refer here first to the mystery of
the ‘living way’ that did not previously exist:
Christ remained connected to his broken body on the cross the moment He gave up His spirit into the Father’s hands, and the tearing of the veil in the temple, that was a partition between the Holy place and the Holy of Holies, alludes to it. It tells us that by the death of the body on the cross the dividing veil between God and man was torn.
The tear began from “top to bottom” (Matt 27:51). The removal of the veil separating man from God began from the top, in other words it was accomplished by God’s own hand, once the offering for atonement was fulfilled.
The veil is the body and the way that is open on to the Holy of Holies:
The Divinely inspired description of the body as a veil in this verse, tells us that the way that has been opened to the Holy of Holies is the Church, because the Body is the Church (Col 1:24). The writer of the book of Hebrews, i.e. the Apostle Paul, does not describe or date what happened, but reveals the present entrance into the heavens through salvation. He concentrates here on the Church and its ministry based on the offering of Christ, the great priest.
Paul the Apostle defines the present work of the Church when he says that the way leading to the Holy of Holies is through the Body.
It is clear that the way Christ followed through the Body raised from the dead is the way of the Ascension. The most beautiful prophecy concerning the Lord’s Ascension in the Old Testament that I have read is Isaiah’s: “Who stirred up one from the east whom victory meets at every step? He gives up nations before him, so that he tramples kings under foot; he makes them like dust with his sword, like driven stubble with his bow. He pursues them and passes on safely, by paths his feet have not trod. Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning? I, the Lord, the first, and with the last; I am He” (Is 41:2-4). Christ ascended not by walking a path, but he was lifted to the right hand of the Most High.
By Christ’s ascension to the right hand of the Most High, in his Body, which still bore the wounds of death, He opened a way to God the Father, to the Holy of Holies, that did not previously exist. The Church was designated His Body and it thus became, at present, the only path leading to the heavens.
The Church, that is the Body, does the work of the high priest:
The revelation of the phrase “a great priest”, in the present, means that the Church, which is the Body, does the work of a high priest. Christ entered the Holy of Holies and was seated at the right hand of the Father, having offered His intercession with His blood. That was an offering that only a high priest could offer, who in ancient times used to enter the earthly Holy of Holies with blood of a bull, once a year to make intercession for the people. This intercession was fulfilled through the blood of Christ: “My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin; but if any one does sin we have an advocate with the Father Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). Paul the Apostle also assured in the book of Hebrews: “Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens” (Heb 7:25, 26).
Here the words “exalted above the heavens” express the Ascension. Consequently the Church became the body of Christ doing its work, its work being the intercession of the high priest, through the Body and Blood of Christ it gives every one who believes and was baptized.
The Church is the revelation of the veil torn from top to bottom:
The Church is the expression of the veil, torn from top to bottom that occurred at the moment of Christ’s death, i.e. the moment the offering was accepted. It has become the way that leads to the Holy of Holies. On that basis Paul the Apostle says that Christ: “raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:6). The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, insists that we, as the body of Christ, were invited since the beginning to stand blameless before God as saints: “Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1:4).
The Church that the Apostle Peter describes is not built of stones, pillars, marble, domes, and spires, but: “like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices” (1 Pet 2:5). Alive through the life of Christ: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16), “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph 2:20). Christ also, by consecrating it with His Blood, makes it last forever, and confers on it His own attributes and the benefit of all His gains.
The Ascension’s triple power:
The Ascension of Christ was by God’s right hand. He rose to the Heavens and sat down at the right hand of the Father, the position that theologically indicates the unique relationship with God that Christ won for His people. It was beyond human imagination to see how God could raise Christ’s wounded body and cause Him, along with the Spirit who participated in it, to ascend into heaven. So Christ Himself said: “I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” (John 10:18)
These are the features of the Church of the Ascension:
1 – All-powerful assistance about which Christ says ‘the gates of hell’ will not be able to overcome it because it is in the hands of God.
2 – It leans on Christ who has Eternal Life.
3 – Assistance from the renewing Holy Spirit, so that evil will not affect it.
This terrific triple power of the Ascended Christ is now given to the Church. The power of the Ascension has come to live among the needs and work of the Church, and in it, Christ has become the possessor of the rising: “I, when I am lifted up from earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). “Because I live, you will live also” (John 14:19).
For whose sake did Christ ascend?
It is written of the ascended Christ that He “is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” (Eph 4:10) with the Spirit, gifts and life. His ascension was awesome, and it takes an enlightened mind to understand what was happening through it, and for whose sake?
See how the Apostle Paul explains to us these mysteries:
“I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe, which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come; and he has put all things under his feet and he has made him the head over all things (What did He make Him head of?) for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (Eph 1:16-23).
The attributes Christ gained at His Ascension to the heavens:
St Paul boldly describes clearly the attributes and the greatness of the position of Christ, resurrected from the dead, ascended to heaven, and seated at the right hand of His Father. From the moment of His resurrection from the dead and His ascension to be seated at His Fathers right hand in the heavens above all the heavenly hosts, He gained authority over principalities, legions, powers, dominions, and every name known today or in the future. Everything was subjected to him and put under His feet. The authority that Christ gained, He gave to the Church, as He presented His Body before the Father on behalf of the Church. Christ thus became the Head of the Church and the Church became His body. The Apostle Paul’s words are true: “You are Christ’s” (1 Cor 3:23), “For God is at work in you, both to will (the head) and to work (the body) for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13), because the head represents the will and the body represents the work.
The analogy between Christ, the Son of God, and the Church that is on earth:
But we question: From where do we make a parallel between Christ the Son of God descending from heaven and the Church that is on earth?
The first source of the parallel that exists between Christ and the Church is birth. This is the starting point:
The Holy Spirit descended on the Virgin Mary, the power of the Most High overshadowed her, and she gave birth to her Son “Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And the Lord will give him the throne of his father David” (Lk 1:35, 32).
We consider that the Church was first born on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the assembled disciples and they received power from above. The Spirit was one, but they all accepted a new birth through the Spirit and started to speak in the Spirit. Everyone heard them speaking in his own native tongue. This shows that the Apostle’s words opened up the listeners’ minds for everyone equally to be able to understand the words of God in his own tongue.
Angels worshipped when Christ, the firstborn, entered the world as stated in the book of Hebrews (Heb 1:6), and the analogy here is that Christ ascended to the highest heavens above all the heavenly beings, so that everything was under His feet. He gave the Church all He had gained and moreover He remains its Head and with it forever.
Just as when the Firstborn entered the world the angels worshipped Him so it has become the work of the Church to teach all the heavenly ranks: “that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose which he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph 3:10, 11).
The Church became the fundamental teacher of the heavenly hosts:
What does this mean?
Christ ascended and sat down at the right hand of God, above all the heavens, and His sitting down is an action of His body, and His body is the Church. The Church became the fundamental teacher of the heavenly hosts because it is considered as being one who brings glad tidings of all God the Father has done to save humankind through His Son. It is those who accept adoption by God in Christ, and who share eternal life with the Father and Son.
It must also be mentioned here that the Church became sovereign through Christ coming into His reign, and the Church was seated with Him on the throne of His glory. We should also note that, according to ancient rite, sovereignty comes before being seated: “When he began to reign, as soon as he had seated himself on his throne…” (1 Kin 16:11). And also, according to ancient Church tradition, it is mentioned in the praise partition of the Resurrection celebration:
I open my mouth and speak
to utter great mysteries
The Lord reigned, sat, and ruled.
Christ was crucified, buried then resurrected.
Power and the three gifts given to the Church:
According to the Gospel of St Matthew, immediately after His resurrection and while He was still with them, Christ said to the assembled disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt 28:18-20).
This is where the Church began to work with Christ’s power and continual presence. The Apostle Paul explained: “we shall also reign with him” (2 Tim 2:12). The Church’s reign emanates from the reign of Christ: “much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:17). It is an eternal reign as just as Christ’s reign is eternal: “And they shall reign for ever and ever” (Rev 22:5).
Paul’s words to the Church of the Ephesians: “He raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:6) mean that the state of reigning comes prior to sitting, and it is an eternal reign in Christ and with Him. For that reason the Book of Revelation uses these words: “and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God” (Rev 5:10). According to the Apostle Peter, when he wrote to the dispersed Christian Jews, we acquire our reign from Christ as well as our priesthood: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2: 9).
His words: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood” mean that we are the Church of the Most High, kings and priests in Christ. Christ is the high priest because: “we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven” (Heb 8:1).
The reason that each one of us can become a priest in Christ our God is because any believer in Christ is now able to enter to the Holy of Holies, i.e. God’s throne, by the blood of Christ in him and with him. The way has been opened for him, ascension is not through human effort but through Divine attraction: “and I when I am lifted up from earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). No longer is the right of entry a once-a-year event, as it was in ancient times. We may enter every morning and every evening, as long as the conscience is cleansed with Blood “and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). “How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb 9:14). St Peter’s words about a royal priesthood mean that you have become the possessors of a kingdom and therefore are no longer strangers or guests.
Concerning his words: “You made us reign” we say that because Christ the Son inherits the kingdom as its heir, we also share the inheritance of the Son through adoption and are given the right to sit with the king: “and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him” (Eph 2:6). He welcomes all those who have conquered the world: “he who conquers I will grant to sit with me on my throne” (Rev 3:21). The reign is an eternal reign, one that never ends: “… exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:17).
We will not enter eternal life as strangers but He: “has called you to his eternal glory (i.e. His reign)” (1 Pet 5:10).
Having been invited into His Kingdom we will not stand in the back row, but will appear in glory with Him as His special guests: “who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thess 2:12). To those of us who have been persecuted He will offer the Kingdom in abundance and the approach to the throne of glory will open wide before us: “so there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:11).
The special privilege given to the persecuted:
This draws our attention to the fact that those who have suffered persecution will have special privilege with the Father and with Christ: “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne…. Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been” (Rev 6:9, 11).
That the Church should enter that heavenly domain and that the children of God should gain this heavenly privilege, one that neither angels nor heads of angels, cherubim nor seraphim, nor rulers nor sovereigns gained, was a mystery to the prophets that they could not understand. The Prophet Daniel saw a vision of this mystery and recorded it for us faithfully, but was unable to understand it:
“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the ancient of the Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Dan 7:13, 14).
“But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, for ever and ever” (Dan 7:18).
“And judgment (the reign) was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints received the kingdom” (Dan 7:22).
“And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey them. Here is the end of the matter” (Dan 7:27, 28).
Daniel heard the strains of an ancient and beautiful symphony. It was one which Christ later referred to when he spoke about his coming:
“Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’ ” (Matt 25:34).
And the Apostle Paul also heard it:
“And charged you to lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thess 2:12).
“Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?” (1 Cor 6: 2).
The Book of Revelation brings the symphony to its conclusion as it assures us:
“For the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever” (Rev 22:5).
This is the inheritance of the Church, though it is an alien in this world.
This is the way of ascension to the Holy of Holies!
(Sermon on the Feast of the Ascension 2002).
 ‘new’ according to the new Arabic translation of the Bible (not ‘recent’ as in the old translation). It is a precise translation to the word prÒsfaton i.e. ‘newly’ that did not exist beforehand. Note: The Greek New Testament with Dictionary, 3rd ed., UBS, 1976.
 “He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev 3:21).
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