Wednesday 27 May 2020

Explanation of the Ascension Icon

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Christ ascended into heaven on the fortieth day after His Resurrection. By His ascension in the Body, Christ raised our corrupted human nature and glorified it. The Feast of the Ascension always falls on the Thursday after the Sunday of the Blind Man which is exactly forty days after Pascha. 

The Acts of the Apostles, written by the Apostle Luke, starts with an account of Christ’s Ascension:
The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which He was taken up, after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen: to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God (Acts 1: 1-3).
We know from the account in the Acts of the Apostles that Christ ascended from the Mount of Olives. In this icon, the mountain is represented by the rocks and the stylized olive trees which appear to sway and point towards Christ. 

Christ is shown blessing with His right hand. We hear in the Gospel: 'He blessed them, He was parted from them, and carried up into heaven' (Luke: 24:51). In His left hand He holds a scroll which is a symbol of His teaching.

The concentric circles that surround Christ are called a mandorla in iconography. A mandorla portrays Christ’s glory, and in this icon also signifies the highest heavens to which Christ is ascending. Two  angels are shown supporting the mandorla. In some icons (see below) the angels are shown blowing trumpets recalling the verse in the Psalms: ‘God is gone up in jubilation, the Lord with the voice of the trumpet’ (Ps. 46:5). We greet each other with this psalm verse during the feast of the Ascension. The greeting is 'God is gone up in jubilation.' The reply is 'The Lord with the voice of the trumpet.'
  • The Ascension of Our Lord, Russian icon from the Malo-Kirillov Monastery, Novgorod School, 1543 downloaded from PBS LearningMedia,
  • This work is out of copyright, with photographic rights held by the Bridgeman Art Library.
Christ is shown seated upon a rainbow or sometimes on a throne. He is seated because He was received up into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father. Christ the Son of God is one in essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit - and has never been separated from them. The throne and the rainbow refer to this verse in the Revelation of Saint John: 

Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne. And He who sat there was like a jasper and a sardius stone in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald (Rev. 4:2-3).
The Theotokos stands directly underneath Christ, in the centre of the foreground. She does not look up, but looks peacefully toward us. She holds her left hand closer to her chest, with palm outward - as do the the martyrs in their icons. This signifies the faith of the Church. In contrast to the apostles, the Theotokos appears still and peaceful. She, unlike the apostles, has a halo around her head signifying that while the apostles waited for the coming of the Holy Spirit, she had been chosen by God and was already overshadowed by the Holy Spirit (see Luke 1:35). In some icons she stretches out her arms in prayer signifying the prayers of the Church.

Two angels stand either side of the Theotokos. They point to Christ  illustrating the account of the Ascension in the Acts of the Apostles: ‘Ye men of Galilee why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, Who is taken up from you into heaven shall come again in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven’ (Acts 1:11). In some icons, the angels hold scrolls with this verse on them. The Ascension icon therefore foretells the Second Coming of Christ. The Mother of God and the Apostles are an image of the Church waiting for the Second Coming.

The apostles are arranged either side of the Theotokos - six on the right and six on the left. St. Paul is on her right, and St. Peter on her left. In contrast to the Theotokos, the heads of the apostles are lifted up, and some hold their hands out in amazement or gesture towards Christ ascending. St. Paul shields his eyes with his right hand recalling his being blinded by the light of Christ on the road to Damascus. 

Christ ascended before St. Paul converted to Christianity, but he is depicted for an important theological reason. The Theotokos and the apostles in the foreground represent the Church awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended not only on the apostles present, but also established the whole Church from among the nations of the world. St. Paul's presence signifies the completeness of the Church. He is also included for another important reason. Just before the Ascension, Christ commanded His apostles to ‘go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature' (Mark 16:15). St. Paul, by His preaching of the Gospel brought countless people to the Faith which is why He is called  God’s chosen vessel and  the Chief of the Apostles.

Christ foretold both His Ascension and the coming of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost when He told His disciples: ‘It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Comforter will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you’(John 16:7).  At this time, it is not possible for most Orthodox Christians to celebrate these important feasts by partaking of the Holy Mysteries and by venerating the icons in church. However, when we look on this icon, we should call to mind the conclusion of the oikos of Ascension matins: ‘The bountiful Giver of gifts distributed gifts unto His Apostles, calling to them as a Father, and strengthening them; He guided them like sons and said unto them: I am not separated from you; I am with you, and no one can be against you.'

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