In the Creed, we confess our belief in Christ as King with these words: "And He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; of His Kingdom there shall be no end." The catechumen as well, as he approaches baptism, is questioned about his faith. He, of necessity, must acknowledge that he believes in Christ as "King and as God."
At the very Annunciation, the Archangel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary, that to the Son whom she was to bring forth "the Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of His father David: and He shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of His kingdom there shall be no end." (Lk. 1:32,33)
When Christ was born, the wise men came to Jerusalem from the east to worship Him: "Where is He that is born King of the Jews?" (Mt. 2:2) When they found Him they offered Him gifts, one of which, gold, was in recognition of His kingship. (Note also God's promise to David at the time of the birth of Solomon in II Kings [II Sam.] 7:13,16 and also in Psalm 131: 11-14. On the day of Pentecost, Peter relates the promise announced by Gabriel to the Lord's promise to David. See Acts 2:30.)
The contradiction between the royal title and the humble lot of Him "that had no place to lay His head" is only too obvious. In fact, the Lord specifically declared His ministry to be one of service and obedience. (Mt. 20:28; Lk. 22:25-27) He repeatedly rejected the attempts to proclaim Him King in a worldly sense. He reproached His disciples when they asked for the first places in His Kingdom after Him, for they thought that He would go up to Jerusalem to take the throne. (Mt. 20:20-28; Mk. 10:35-40)
Then again, when Christ perceived that the multitude "would come and take Him by force, to make Him a king, He departed again into a mountain Himself alone." (Jn. 6:15)
On the other hand, on being questioned by Pilate about the accusation against Him, "Art thou a king then?" Jesus answered affirmatively, "Thou sayest that I am a king." On. 18:37; Mk. 15:2; Mt. 27:11; Lk. 23:3) Yet He had already told Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight ...but now my kingdom is not from hence." (Jn. 18:36) (The "now" of the foregoing statement is very important, as we shall see later.)
Pilate then, for some reason that he himself did not understand, refused to change the name-plate that he had written for the cross, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews." Even when the Jews who read it objected, he replied, "What I have written I have written." (Jn. 19:19-22)
The only act or exterior manifestation of Christ's kingship or royal ministry during His earthly life was His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He even prepares, or better, commands His royal entry. He sends two disciples to a neighboring village to bring Him an ass's colt so that He may enter the city on it. (Mt. 21:1-6)
Here the Lord directly applies the prophecy of Zechariah concerning the entry of the King-Messiah to Himself: "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: He is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass." (9:9; see also, Is. 52)
As in other cases, the disciples did not understand these things at the first, "but when Jesus was glorified, then remembered they that these things were written of Him, and that they had done these things unto Him." On. 12:16)
The people received Him as a king: "Hosanna; blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord: Blessed be the Kingdom of our Father David, that cometh in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest." (Mk. 11: 9,10) "Hosanna to the Son of David ..." (Mt. 21:9) "Blessed be the King that cometh in the name of the Lord: peace in heaven, and glory in the highest." (Lk. 19: 38) (We note here a harmony with the song of the angels at the birth of Christ in the city of David.) The "blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord" is the direct application to Christ of the prophecy of the messianic Psalm 117/118: 26.
Jesus accepted this acclaim as king: the spreading of cloaks under His feet, the waving of palms and branches, and the cries of all, even the children. All of this was necessary, for the King had truly come into His own city. But the chief priests and the scribes were indignant and asked Him: "hearest thou what these say?" And Jesus responded by recalling Psalm 8:2 : "Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise." (Mt. 21: 15,16) He testified to the fact that this praise had to be: "I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out." (Lk. 19: 40)
But the course of Jerusalem was already set. The Lord wept over the city even at this moment of triumph, saying to it, "If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong to thy peace." (Lk. 19: 41-44)
The day after entering the city, Christ went into the Temple. There He exercised His authority and purified it by driving the money-changers out. (Mt. 21: 12,13)
This royal glory was only of short duration at this time. The week of the Passion begins immediately. Just as before, when He entered into His priestly ministry, His glory revealed on Mt. Tabor was a momentary break-through. It was still necessary for Him to carry the earthly ministry, with the obedience that was the center of it, to the ultimate, to the death on the cross. His testimony to His being both the Son of Man and the Son of God would have been incomplete if He had not allowed certain ones to see His eternal glory in the Transfiguration, and had He not manifested His royalty or kingship in the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.
The only acts of our Lord during His earthly life in which He is seen specifically to accept any acclaim as King were His triumphal entry into Jerusalem and His answer to Pilate. On the other hand, it must always be remembered that Jesus Christ was the God-Man. Even during the time of His humiliation and before His glorification, He exercised that power that belonged to Him as Lord and Ruler, as King.
Many of these things were in preparation for the establishment of His Kingdom in the Church. He taught the absolute. eternal truth and gave a new commandment. (Jn. 13:34) Those who heard Him in the synagogue "were astonished at His doctrine: for He taught them as one that had authority..." (Mk. 1:22) He declared that He would build His Church (Mt. 16:18), and for this society He provided its basic form of worship, the Eucharist: "this do in remembrance of me." (Lk. 22:19)
Another act of Jesus which was a sign of His power was his selection of the Apostles, who were to be the hierarchy of His Church. To them He would transmit spiritual authority and power, including that of binding and loosing. He promised this to them in the name of Peter after He announced the foundation of the Church (Mt. 16:19), and fulfilled His promise after the resurrection (Jn. 20:23).
In one sense, the miracles that Jesus did during the time of His humiliation belong to His prophetic ministry. The work of the prophet in the history of God's people was to proclaim the will of God, but the proof of their calling was often their miracles.
On the other hand, the miracles of Christ, even if they do belong to the prophetic period and role, can certainly not be separated from His exercise of His lordship and sovereignty, which had always belonged to Him. It is for this reason that some theologians have tended to associate the miracles more with His royal ministry. Yet it matters little whether we classify them as belonging to one or the other ministry. The point is that it was the divine power that healed, overcame the laws of nature, and even raised people from the dead.
The Lord Himself pointed specifically to His miracles, His works, as proof of His power and His divinity. For example. when a man sick of the palsy was brought to Him, He seeing their faith, said to Him: "Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee." And then, knowing that "certain of the scribes" were doubting and accusing Him of blasphemy, He said: "That ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith He to the sick of the palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed..." (Mt. 9: 2-6)
Even more pointedly, Jesus offers His works as proof of who He was and of who had sent Him. "If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not; but if I do, though ye believe not me, believe the works." On. 10: 37,38) Further He declared: "The works which the Father hath given me to finish, the same works that I do, bear witness of me." (Jn. 5: 36) "Believe me that I am in the Father, and the father in me: or else believe me for the very works' sake." On. 14: 11; see also 15: 24) Both the Apostles Peter and Paul (Acts 2:22,23 and Hb. 2:3,4) offer the miracles, signs and wonders as proof that the power of God was working in Jesus Christ.
Jesus demonstrated His power over all of nature when He changed water into wine On. 2:1-11), when He walked on the sea (Mt. 14:26), and when, with a word, He calmed a storm. This latter miracle made His disciples ask, "What manner of man is this, for that even the winds and the sea obey Him!" (Mt. 8:23-27;Lk. 8:25)
Christ healed every kind of sickness and disease. (Mt. 9:20-26; 14:35,36) He gave sight to the blind (Mk. 10:46-52), hearing to the deaf and speech to the mute (Mt. 9:32-35; 12:22; Lk. 11:14), and wholeness to the lepers (Mt. 8:1-4). And finally, with a few loaves of bread and fishes, He miraculously fed five thousand men, not counting women and children, on one day and more than four thousand on another. (Mt. 14:15 ff. and 15:32 ff.)
That Jesus had dominion over the powers of Hell and over demons is clear from the many cases in which He commanded evil spirits to come out of men. (Mk. 1:25; 5:8; 9:25; Lk. 8:32,33)
The demons themselves recognized Him, as is evident from the incident in the country of the Gergesenes. On seeing Him approach, they cried out, "What have we to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God? art thou come hither to torment us before the time?" (Mt. 8:28-34; see also Mk. 3:11; 5:7)
He had communicated to His disciples the power of the destruction of the works of Satan in the human race even before His glorification and the sending of the Holy Spirit. For example, when the seventy disciples, on returning from their preaching mission, told Him with joy: "Lord, even the devils are subject unto us through thy name," He told them, "I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven." Hereby He gave testimony of His eternal existence. (Lk. 10:17,18)
This sovereign power of our Lord over the spirits of evil during His earthly life, the apostle Peter attests to in the presence of the newly converted Gentiles: "Ye know [that] which was published throughout all Judea, and began from Galilee, after the baptism which John preached: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with Him." (Acts 10:37,38)
Most remarkable, of course, is Jesus' demonstration of His power over death. He raised the son of the of Nain by touching his bier and saying: "Young widow man, I say unto thee, Arise." (Lk. 7:14) He brought to life the daughter of back Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue, by a simple touch and this word: "Maid, arise." (Lk. 8:54) Then, just before His own death and resurrection, He raised His friend Lazarus, who had been dead four days, saying in a loud voice: "Lazarus, come forth." On. 11:43) Even this important incident, in which we see Jesus' real human compassion, for "Jesus wept," He also addressed the Father in the presence of the people precisely in order that they might believe and He had sent Him: "I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me." (v. 42)
So, again, in the days of His humiliation, as He went about fulfilling His ministry as Prophet and as High Priest, and worked in the power of the Holy Spirit as the God-Man, Jesus' miracles demonstrated both that He was sent from God, and that He was Lord and Sovereign: King of the universe and the Vanquisher of death.
The Church believes that after His crucifixion, the Lord Jesus Christ descended to hell to proclaim salvation to those who were held there and to rescue the just of the Old Testament and others who had not been able to know Him in their earthly life.
While the most commonly used Creed, the Nicene, makes no reference to the descent to hell, another ancient creed, that of the Apostles, contains this doctrinal statement: "He descended into Hell." Although this creed is not used in the Orthodox Church, its doctrines are certainly not questioned.
There is sufficient evidence in the writings of the Apostles, that is, the New Testament, to support our belief in this doctrine. To be sure, the Fathers of the Church of almost every century testify to its general acceptance. The Fifth Ecumenical Council defines the doctrine in an indirect way, in the anathema (or condemnation) it places on anyone who denies "that the Word of God, being incarnate in a flesh animated by a rational and spiritual soul, descended to hell and then ascended to heaven." (Anathema ix, against Origen)
St. Peter, in his discourse to the Jews (Acts 2; 27-31) quotes the words of the Psalmist David: "Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption." (Psalm 15/16:10) Peter declares that David was foretelling the resurrection of Christ.
Later, in his First Epistle, Peter expresses the idea even more clearly when he says: "Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: by which also He went and preached unto the spirits in prison." (3: 18,19) In other words, while He was dead in the body, Christ descended alive in the spirit to the prison of the spirits in order to proclaim to them the salvation He had preached on earth.
St. Paul also refers to the same thing when he asks: "Now that He ascended, what is it but that He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?" (Eph. 4: 9,10) Compare also Romans 10:6,7: "Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:) or, Who shall descend into the deep [or, the abyss]? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead)."
From among the writings of the Fathers of the Church, we shall cite just a few of the many references to our Lord's descent to hell.
"The Lord descended to the depths of the earth, announcing also His coming and the remission of sins to all those who believed on Him, that is, to all those who had awaited Him, to the same one who foretold His coming and had fulfilled His ordinances, the just, the prophets and the patriarchs." (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, IV, 12, no. 1)
"He remained three days in the dwelling-place of the dead, and He descended to them in order to free them from there and to save them." (Ibid., V,3, no. 1,2)
"The Lord descended to hell only to proclaim the Gospel." (St. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, VI, 6; cf.11,10)
"After having revealed the truth to men, according to the will of God, He submitted to death in order to destroy and conquer hell." (Lactantius, Divine Institutions, IV, chap. 12)
"He was crucified, buried; He descended into hell in His divinity and His (human) soul, and He took captivity captive." (St. Epiphanius, Haeres Herodian, xx)
"David predicted clearly in Psalm 4$ (/49):15, the descent into hell of the Lord Jesus, who freed with the other souls that of the Prophet that it might not remain in hell." (St. Basil the Great, Homily on Psalm 48:15)
"He was buried, but He arose; He descended into hell, but He rescued the souls from there." (St. Gregory the Theologian, Third Theological Oration)
"Imagine that God, having left heaven and His kingly throne, descended to the earth, even to hell, arming Himself for the struggle." (St. John Chrysostom, On Matthew, Homily ii, n. 1)
And to refute Apollinarius, who denied the existence of the human soul in Christ, St. Athanasius asked him:
"But, how could Jesus Christ descend to hell, when His body was in the tomb, and if, in His divinity, He is present everywhere?" (Against Apollinarius, I, n.13,14; I, 17) St. Athanasius took for granted that this descent to hell was generally recognized among Christians.
The witness of the Church can be summarized by the Paschal Troparion: "In the grave with the body and in hell with the soul, as God, while in paradise with the thief and upon the throne with the Father and the Spirit, wast thou, O Christ, filling all things, thyself uncircumscribed." In this hymn, we see that in the descent into hell, the humanity and the divinity of Christ are not separated. It is the God-Man who descended to proclaim salvation to the captives and to conquer hell and its hold over man.
The foregoing has demonstrated that the Church as always believed in and accepted as dogma the descent of Christ into hell. This leads then to the question of the purpose of His stay in the place of the dead.
1. First, St. Paul answers the question when he says: "When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive and gave gifts unto men. (Now that he ascended, what is it but that He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended far above all heavens, that He might fill all things." (Eph. 4:8-10)
The Fathers of the Church explain St. Paul's answer thus: "Hell was led captive by the descent which the Lord made there; it has been annulled, mocked, killed, overturned, struck." (St. John Chrysostom, Paschal Sermon)
"He did away with the sting of death, He destroyed the somber doors of hell most vile, He gave freedom to the souls." (St. Gregory the Theologian, Hymn to Christ)
"He came for the salvation of the souls that were in hell waiting for His coming from all eternity; and having descended, He took down the brazen gates, broke the iron bolts, and led to freedom those who had previously been enchained in hell." (Eusebius, Evangelical Demonstration, bk. x, On the Words of Psalm XVI)
2. As we have already seen, the Lord's mission was to free those who believed in Him before His coming into the world, those who had foreseen and prophesied concerning Him, and those who had lived according to God's law.
"He was really placed in a stone sepulchre, as a man; but because of Him the stone was rent from fright; He descended into the subterranean places in order to set the just free. Because, would you imagine that those living on earth at the time of Christ, most of whom were unrighteous, would be able to enjoy His grace, while those who came after Adam would not receive their freedom? Isaiah had-prophesied so many things about Him. Would yon think that the King, on descending, would not give freedom to His herald? There too were David, Samuel and all the Prophets, including John ..." (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, IV, n. 11; XIV, n. 19)
3. In the descent into hell, Christ, truly dead in His body, but alive in His human soul, which was still in inseparable union with His Divine Nature, completed His saving work. He not only had proclaimed salvation to the living, but He did not forget the righteous dead. He came and finished His universal proclamation.
The God-Man followed the destiny of all men after Adam, and went to the resting place of all His precursors, the prophets. In this His prophetic ministry continues. He brought to them the consequences of His saving sacrifice; in this, His priestly ministry is seen. Then, in the splendor of His glory, He conquered hell and the dominion of death; in this, He is king. Thus, did Christ free those who awaited Him and took away the sting of death and its finality for all mankind. Hereby, He gave man the possibility of living with Him forever in His Kingdom.
Although our Lord Jesus Christ had previously revealed His power over death by restoring to life several people who had died, His victory over death was accomplished by His resurrection from the dead on the third day.
The Word of God explains this victory as a victory for all men. "Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his order: Christ the first fruits; afterward they that are Christ's at His coming." (I Cor. 15:20-23)
Those who believe in Christ and live the life that is in Him, the core of which is participation in His holy mysteries, become partakers of Him and will live with Him forever. "For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end." (Hb. 3:14) "Labor not for the meat that perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you..." (Jn. 6:27)
The Lord Himself taught: "I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live." (Jn. 11:25) "I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever: and the bread which I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world." (Jn. 6:51) "He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him." On. 6:56) The Church has always understood these sayings of the Lord to refer specifically to the way in which He provided for man to eat His flesh and to drink His blood: the Eucharist.
Baptism is the other way in which we are directly made partakers of Christ, of His victory over death in the Resurrection. St. Paul teaches: "As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ." (Gal. 3:27) "Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into His death? Therefore we are buried with Him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life....Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him; knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over Him." (Rm. 6:3,4,8,9)
Because of our union with Christ, we are already raised with Him, being dead to the old life. "If then ye be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are glad, and your life is hid with Christ in God." (Col. 3:1-3)
The Resurrection as Christ's victory over death is consistently taught by the Fathers of the Church. For example, St. Athanasius writes: "The Lord had as the particular purpose of His dispensation the manifestation of the resurrection of His body. He wished thus to demonstrate to all the marvel of His victory over death, and to convince them that by Him corruption is destroyed and incorruption given to men." (The Incarnation of the Word of God, n. 22) As well, St. Cyril of Jerusalem says: "He is risen, that dead man, who is free among the dead (Psalm 87/88:5), He is the very Liberator of the dead. He whom they crown atrociously, in His great long-suffering, with a crown of thorns, arose crowned with the diadem of victory over death." (Catechetical Lectures, XIV, n.l)
The resurrection of Christ is not to be understood figuratively, but quite literally. It was predicted by David the Prophet: "For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption." (Psalm 15/16:10) This prophecy was applied by Peter, in his sermon on the day of Pentecost, to Christ's resurrection. (Acts 2:29-31) The Lord Himself declared that the stay of Jonah in the belly of a great fish was a symbol of His burial and resurrection. (Mt. 12:39-40; 16:4) Then He simply declared many times to His disciples that He would be killed and that He would be raised from the dead on the third day. (Mt. 16:21; 17:9; 26:32; Jn. 2:19; 10:17,18)
The Apostles, who were eye-witnesses, testify to the reality of the Resurrection. According to their own testimony. Christ appeared to them for forty days afterward. He spoke with them and explained the Scriptures to them. He revealed the mysteries of the Kingdom of God to them. He ate and drank with them and permitted them to touch Him. (Mt. 28; Mk. 16; Lk. 24: Jn. 20,21)
Then again, the writings of the Fathers of the Church in every generation are full of detailed teachings concerning the literal, physical resurrection of Christ. Among them. the following may be consulted: St. Clement of Rome. To the Corinthians, 1, n.24; St. Ignatius, To the Smyrneans, n.1,2,3; St. Polycarp, To the Philippians. ix: St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1,10: St. Cyril of Jerusalem. Catechetical Lectures, IV, n. 12; and especially St. John Chrysostom, in his 90th homily, On Matthew.
The reality of the resurrection has been denied by many from the earliest days. Since it was the proof of the truth of all that Christ taught about Himself, the Jews who rejected His messiahship would certainly refuse to recognize it. They explained the empty tomb as a trick on the part of the Christians, claiming that Jesus' body had been stolen from the grave. (See Chrysostom's Homily 90, On Matthew; cf. Mt. 28:11-15)
Later in the Church's history, there were others who taught that the Saviour did not have a real body at all, but that He only appeared to have one, like a phantom. These Docetists would explain His appearance to the disciples after the resurrection as that of a ghost.
In our own times, the denial of the Resurrection is very widespread among "Christian" modernists. These usually disavow altogether the divinity of Christ, at least in the sense that it has always been accepted by the historic Church. Many of them claim, for example, that the idea of the physical resurrection was a distortion of the enthusiasm of the disciples. (They refer to that group of Christians as the "Easter community.") They simply "realized" that their Master had "transcended" death in His life and works, and in this sense only had "triumphed" over it.
The recent English heretic, John A.T. Robinson, in his famous book Honest to God, sums up the contemporary secularist attitude toward the Lord's rising from the dead. He teaches that the physical resurrection was part of the mythologizing tendency of the early Christians. He would have contemporary Christians recover the enthusiasm of that first apostolic generation but not "the myth into which they had translated it." For him and others of his school, Pentecost was a sort of "group realization" of the transcendence of their Master's teachings, when all of a sudden it hit them.
Yet it is quite simple to refute Robinson, and those like him, from the clear evidence in Scripture that the apostles were anything but enthusiastic following the Resurrection. They had returned to their nets, even after several resurrection appearances. On. 21:4ff.)
Nor can Pentecost be explained away as a group realization. Indeed the miraculous speaking with tongues was marveled at by those who were not of the apostolic "group". (Acts 2:1-13)
Had the Resurrection merely been the product of such a mythologizing tendency of early Christians, reason would lead one to believe that they would not have chosen to document such obvious counter-indications of their “myth”.
Holy Scripture contains abundant evidence of the final event in the earthly life of the Saviour, the Ascension. It was foretold in the Old Testament: "Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive: thou hast received gifts for men..." (Psalm 67/68:18). St. Paul -specifically refers this prophecy to Christ's ascension, and explains the second part of the verse as an allusion to His descent into "the lower parts of the earth," to free those held in captivity. (Eph. 4:8-10)
The Lord Himself told His disciples before the Passion that He would return to the Father, and that this return would prepare the way for their ascension. "I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you. I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also." (Jn. 14:2,3) And further. He says: "Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more..." (v. 19) "Now I go my way to Him that sent me..." (16:5) "I leave the world, and go to the Father." (16:28) Finally, in the high priestly prayer, He says to the Father: "I come to thee." (17:11,13)
In two of the Gospels, Mark and Luke, and in the Books of Acts, there are narrations of the event itself. "So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, He was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God." (Mk. 16:19) "And it came to pass, while He blessed them, He was parted from them, and carried up into heaven." (Lk.24:51) "And when He had spoken these things, while they beheld, He was taken up; and a cloud received Him out of their sight." (Acts1:9)
In Matthew, while the ascension itself is not mentioned, it is clearly implied, both by the atmosphere of a last conversation and the promise to be with the disciples until the end of the world. (28:20) In John, while the Lord had made the same promise not to leave the disciples "comfortless" (lit. "orphans") (14:18), He only makes a reference to His coming again. Yet this indicates His leaving the world. (21:22)
In Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost, we find this: "Being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, He hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear. For David is not ascended into the heavens: but he saith himself, The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand..." (Acts 2:33,34)
Neither is there any lack of reference to the event and its significance in the Epistles. For example, in Ephesians, Paul, speaking of the power of God, says: "...the working of His mighty power, which wrought in Christ, when he raised Him from the dead, and set Him at His own right hand in the heavenly places." (1:19,20)
In Hebrews, the Apostle makes a point of the fact that it is as High Priest and Intercessor for us that Christ has entered into heaven. "After He had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, [He] sat down on the right hand of God." (10:12) "[He is entered] into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us." (9:24)
The Fathers of the Church make many references to the Ascension, and testify to the Church's belief in every century in the literal departure in glory from the world, as recorded in Mark and Luke. For example, St. Cyril of Jerusalem says: " But when Jesus had finished His course of patient endurance, and had redeemed mankind from their sins, He ascended again into the heavens, a cloud receiving Him up: and as He went up Angels were beside Him, and Apostles were beholding ... He has ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives on the East. For having gone down hence into Hades, and come up again to us, He ascended again from us into heaven, His Father addressing Him, and saying, Sit thou on My right hand, until I make thine enemies Thy footstool, Psalm 109 (/110): 1." (Catechetical Lectures, IV, 13,14)
St. Gregory the Theologian makes a point of the fact that Christ was true man in His Ascension. (Oration xii, On Pentecost)
It would be worthwhile to quote from other Fathers. They, too, relate the event itself and its significance quite consistently. Yet, the liturgical texts and the scriptural lessons prescribed for the Feast reveal perhaps with greater clarity the place the Ascension has in the Church's understanding of the work of Christ.
In the second Old Testament reading at Vespers, we find: "Behold the Lord hath made it to be heard in the ends of the earth, tell the daughter of Zion: Behold thy Saviour cometh: behold His reward is with Him, and His work before Him ... Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bosra ... I, that speak justice, and am a defender to save. Why then is thy apparel red, and thy garments like theirs that tread in the winepress? ... in His love, and in His mercy He redeemed them [of the house of Israel]; and He carried them, and lifted them up ..." (Is. 62:10-12; 63:1-3,7-9 [LXX])
Here we see prophesied the Saviour's return to the Father after having accomplished His work of redemption, the crucifixion with the shedding of His blood, and His preparing in the Ascension the entry of all into the Kingdom of heaven.
Christ, the Son. who is eternally with the Father, enters into heaven taking His glorified human nature with Him. "The angels wonder as they see a man more exalted than they. The Father receiveth into His bosom Him who is eternally with Him..." ( First Sticheron on Lord, I have called, at Vespers)
"From the Fatherly bosom thou wast inseparable, O sweet Jesus, and on earth thou didst behave like a man. Thou hast ascended in glory from the Mount of Olives; and by thy pity thou didst raise our fallen nature and seat it with the Father ... "(Glory... Now... on Lord, I have called, at Vespers)
The Saviour ascended in glory from the Mount of Olives to fill all things with His glory and to send the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. "Thou didst ascend in glory from the Mount of Olives, 0 Christ God, at thy disciples' side, and didst sit down at the right hand of the Father, O thou who dost fill all with thy Divinity, sending to them thy Holy Spirit, the Illuminator, Strengthener, and Sanctifier of our souls." (Third Sticheron. of the Aposticha, Vespers)
The human nature that the Lord took to heaven was glorified or deified, pointing to the deification of those who will be saved in Christ. "The eternal Word before all the ages, who took a human nature and deified it in a mystical way, today doth rise ascending..." (Second Kathisma, Matins)
In the Ascension, our Lord Jesus Christ reconciled what had been separated by man's sin, our human bodies with the celestial. "...Having united things on earth with those in heaven, thou didst ascend..." (Kontakion of the Feast) "O Christ, thou didst take upon thy shoulders the nature that had gone astray and didst present it to God the Father..." (Troparion in the Seventh Ode, Matins) "Our nature, fallen of old, has been elevated above the angels, and it is seated upon the divine Throne, in a way that passeth all understanding. (Troparion in the Eighth Ode, Matins)
The Ascension completes the work of the Son inaugurated by His incarnation: having taken upon Himself our fallen human nature, "[He] took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men ...He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted Him, and given Him a name which is above every name." (Phil. 2:7-9)
Thus, it is our nature that is taken with Christ in the Ascension. This is the glorification of Christ, who was humiliated at the time of the Passion, "that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (vss. 10,11) And consequently, this is the glorification of our own nature, which He came to lift up and save from corruption and death.