Forty days after Christ’s resurrection, He was taken up into the Heavens before the disciples, and so forty days after Easter, is the Feast of the Ascension. The icon for this feast shows the events as described in the Book of Acts, though as with all Holy Icons there is more revealed than just a straight retelling of the story in pictures.
Based on the accounts written by St Luke in his Gospel (Luke 24:36-53) and the Book of Acts (Acts 1:1-12), the icon of the Ascension is correspondingly ancient. One of the earliest surviving images of the Ascension, a full-page illustration from the 6th century Rabbula Gospels, is remarkably similar to all subsequent icons, with precious few variations. Icons from St Catherine’s monastery in Sinai, for example, show little change between images of the Ascension made in the 6th century with those painted almost 600 years later. Regardless of age or location, the Icon of the Ascension seems to have been “canonized” early on in the Church’s history.
The image itself is characterized by colour: the robes of the Apostles, the Mother of God, the Angels, and Christ Himself surrounded by light; all this is suitable for the Feast itself, which is one of the Twelve Great Feasts and a joyous celebration.
The icon contains both confusion and peace: the former is borne of worldly reasoning, whilst the latter comes from divine, heavenly, order.
In the Scriptures, Jesus is described as being merely “taken up” into the skies and disappearing from sight behind a cloud. Seemingly contrary to this, the icon of the event shows Christ in glory: surrounded by a mandorla (or circle) of light, flanked by angels, and arrayed in brilliant golden robes. Indeed, the similarity between the appearance of Christ at His Ascension, and the appearance of Christ at His Second Coming are striking:
The image of Christ in glory, seated upon a “rainbow”, comes directly from the Book of Revelation, regarding the Last Judgment and Second Coming of Jesus Christ:
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 reason Christ ascending into Heaven is depicted the same as Christ’s Second Coming is because of the words of the angels present at the Ascension:
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11)
And so the Icon depicts Jesus’ Ascension and Second Coming “in like manner”. Not that the disciples below Christ fully understand these words yet.
The distinction between heavenly peace and worldly confusion is most apparent upon the Mount of Olives. The Apostles look up in a combination of fear and wonder, their arms waving like the olive trees on the mount. In the centre, the two angels “in white apparel” exhort the men to cease their gazing into heaven and return to Jerusalem to receive the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. Between the two angels stands Mary the Mother of God, hands raised in prayer, not staring up, but peacefully toward us. Already overshadowed by the Holy Spirit since Christ’s conception, Mary appears to understand the deep mysteries of her Son’s birth, death, resurrection and ascension, already hoping on Christ’s return. This hope brings her the divine peace shared by Jesus Christ and the angels: they all have halos signifying the grace and glory of God, whereas the disordered Apostles do not.
An Icon of the Church Before Pentecost
The Ascension, as well as showing the historical event of Christ’s ascension, also symbolically depicts the Church. This is most evident by the Apostle Paul being present in the icon, despite the Ascension occurring before Paul’s conversion (recounted later in the Book of Acts).
This ahistoric depiction is not uncommon in holy icons: the icon of Pentecost also shows Paul, as it too is an icon of the Church. The differences and similarities between the two festal icons (the feasts only being separated by 10 days) are deliberate. Before the coming of the Holy Spirit the Church is put into a certain amount of confusion by the physical absence of Christ. At Pentecost – by the power of the Holy Spirit – the Church, again represented by the Apostles, is shown in order. And the Apostles get their halos.
But amid the confusion of the Church before Pentecost there is the Mother of God, prayerfully and peacefully entreating God, and hoping upon His promised return. Gazing out, she exhorts us, whilst still amid the confusion and disorder of the world, to do the same: spiritually gazing to the heavens in prayer, awaiting the return of Our Lord.
Abandoning on earth the things of earth, leaving to the dust the things of ash, now, let us come to our senses and raise on high our eyes and minds. Mortals, let us make our sight together with our senses fly to heaven’s gates. Let us imagine we are standing on the Mount of Olives and that we bend our gaze on the Redeemer, as he rides up on a cloud. For, from where the Lord has hastened back to heaven, there too the One who loves to give has distributed his gifts to his Apostles, Cherishing them as a father and confirming them, guiding them as sons and saying to them, ‘I am not parting from you. I am with you, and there is no one against you.’
(Hymn by St Romanos the Melodist for the Ascension Feast)