Forty days after Easter we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord. We learn in Acts 1:3 that this event occurred forty days after the Lord’s Resurrection:
“To these He also presented Himself alive, after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking of the things concerning the Kingdom of God”.
Forty days is referred to many times in the scriptures. Jesus was bought to the temple forty days after his birth. He spent forty days in the desert. There are various views on the significance of forty days. However, this does explain why in the Maronite tradition we hold a memorial Mass for our faithful departed after 40 days. This is symbolic of the time that Jesus spent on earth after his death and resurrection and when he ascended.
The Ascension marks the end of the Risen Lord’s time on Earth. In Acts 1:4 we learn that Jesus is leaving with a promise, the sending of the Holy Spirit and Pentecost:
While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
For this reason we ask in the Entrance hymn of the Maronite Ascension Liturgy:
Send to us your Spirit, Lord; may he strengthen us in faith,
renew us in love and in hope that never fails.
In the Prayer of Forgiveness in the liturgy we learn:
O Christ, by your ascension you ended your stay on earth, completed your plan of salvation and returned to the Father to prepare a place for us, so that we may be where you are.
This may echo Jacob of Serug’s glorious homily on this feast – “On that Chariot that Ezekiel the Prophet Saw”. Jacob recognises that although Christ has ascended into heaven, we have been left with the Eucharist – Christ’s very body and flesh is here with us now. Jacob beautifully explains:
He has come to you, to your place. Look at Him! for He is with you At the altar as [at] a meeting-place with you, so that you may see Him as He rests upon the table, And from the particles of His body all creation is satisfied. (606:4-7)
The prophecy found in Ezekiel 10: 18-19 of the Ascension, is a focus of the early Syriac writers.
Then the glory of the Lord went out from the threshold of the house and stopped above the cherubim. The cherubim lifted up their wings and rose up from the earth in my sight as they went out with the wheels beside them. They stopped at the entrance of the east gate of the house of the Lord; and the glory of the God of Israel was above them.
The revelations of the Old Testament are more than a mere coincidence. These matters were prophesised in the Old Testament as a revelation leading to the Incarnation of the Word in the New Testament. The Ascension is also prophesised in Psalm 47:5 which is chanted as the Gospel proclamation for the Ascension Liturgy:
“God has gone up with a shout,
the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.”
The Ascension and the vision of Ezekiel is depicted in an icon contained in the Rabula Gospel which is a Syriac-Maronite treasure. The Rabula Gospel was written and illustrated in 586 A.D. The manuscript is in Syriac and is an important part of the study of the Syriac tradition. The Gospel remained with the Maronites for many centuries and in 1361, the ancient manuscript was housed with the Maronite Church in Qannoubine. By early 1500 the manuscript was placed in the Medici Library in Florence, Italy.
The icon depicts Jesus’ Ascension to heaven as told in Acts 1:6-11. Read the Gospel and take some time to pray with the Icon:
So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’
Jesus can be seen at the top of the icon ascending with angels beside him. Mary is seen with the people witnessing the ascension. The Gospel never places Mary at the scene, but her place in the icon attests to the important role that Mary was given in Syriac tradition from the earliest Christian times.
However, that is not the only scripture depicted in the icon. Examine the icon more carefully while reading about the vision of Ezekiel.
“I looked, and there were four wheels beside the cherubim, one beside each cherub; and the appearance of the wheels was like gleaming beryl. And as for their appearance, the four looked alike, something like a wheel within a wheel. When they moved, they moved in any of the four directions without veering as they moved; but in whatever direction the front wheel faced, the others followed without veering as they moved. Their entire body, their rims, their spokes, their wings, and the wheels—the wheels of the four of them—were full of eyes all around. As for the wheels, they were called in my hearing “the wheelwork.” Each one had four faces: the first face was that of the cherub, the second face was that of a human being, the third that of a lion, and the fourth that of an eagle.” Ezekiel 10: 9-14
If you look closely you can see four wheels, a lion, an eagle, a Cherub and a human face. These may have various meaning including symbolising the very nature of Christ himself.
This icon is rich in theology and is an overwhelming sight. It invites us all to dig deeper to truly grasp the meaning of this great feast.
On this feast we are reminded that Jesus has completed His mission on earth and gone forth to prepare the way for us. However, He has not left us completely, our next season in the Maronite church is Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descends and dwells with us and in us. Jesus may have completed his earthly mission, but He has not left us. At Pentecost we will come to understand that He has sent us the Holy Spirit to reside in us and comfort us. Jesus remains with us in the Eucharist, giving each of us the opportunity to be with him here on earth. We rejoice that Heaven and Earth have been joined, Jesus has brought the two together.
Theresa Simon and Christina Maksisi