Understanding the Ascension Feast
Introduction to the Feast
The Church celebrates the Feast of the Ascension on Thursday, the fortieth day in the Holy Fifty Days. It is considered one of the Seven Major Feasts of the Lord. On this day, the Lord ascended by His divine power to Heaven and sat at the right hand of the Father.
The ascension of Christ Himself was part of His plan for our ascension as well. He ascended to prepare a place for us in His Kingdom. He ascended with the human body to give us the ability to ascend as well. He ascended so He may seat us and glorify us with Him. He “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6).
The Lord spoke three promises regarding His Ascension.
- The first was, “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you” (Jn. 16:7).
- The second promise was, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (Jn. 14:18).
- His third promise was, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to Myself” (Jn. 12:32).
For this reason, we rejoice on this day on which the Lord Jesus Christ raised our eyes from the dust of the earth, so that we may direct our thoughts to spiritual matters concerning the eternal life above. The disciples themselves “were gazing up toward heaven” (Acts 1:10). Our thoughts have been directed to Heaven, and our goal is to live with Christ in His Kingdom.
In His ascension to the heavens, Christ sat at the right hand of the Father with power and glory. Daniel the prophet prophesized of this in a vision, as he “watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient one and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed” (Dan. 7:13-14). By sitting at the right hand of the Father is to say that the equality between Him and the Father is everlasting. Therefore, the ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ and His sitting at the right hand of the Father is a declaration of His eternal reign, and a means of power for us to overcome sin.
Significance of the Feast
The Ascension feast is the glory and honor of the rest of the feasts, as the Fathers say, because in it the Lord ascended to heaven after completing the redemption work or completed all measure of salvation after forty days of his resurrection (Luke 24:51, Acts 1:1-11).
On this feast day, the Church celebrates a memorial of the ascension of the Lord in three ways:
- Imitating the angels that rejoiced over Him and prepared to receive Him in preparation for His great abode and majestic majesty, and each of them began to preach to the other His coming (Ps 24: 7).
- Fulfilling the prophet David’s words, in which he called upon all nations to sing his name and celebrate the anniversary of the ascension with joy (Psalm 47: 5-7).
- According to what was stated in the orders of the Apostles, which is: (From the beginning of the day from the first Sunday, count forty days, from the first to the fifth of Saturdays, and then put a feast for the ascension of the Lord who completed all the arrangements and economy and ascended to God the Father who sent Him and sat on the right hand of power (Didascalia Apostolorum 31) Do not work on the day of the Ascension, because Christ’s plan was completed in it (Safwat al-Safwa 198, 199).
As for the sayings of the Fathers, it indicates that the feast has been in the church since ancient times. Saint Kabrian says: “No human tongue nor angelic can describe, according to the great duty, the celebration and the honor that is due to the incarnate God by His ascension on this day and because He is indescribable and incomprehensible.” St. Epiphanius says: (This day is the glory and honor of the rest of the feasts, because it is clear that on this feast the Lord has completed the work of the great shepherd which we hear about in (Luke 15: 4-7). Finally, St. John Chrysostom says: The prophet David prophesied of a bright and great glory which is indescribable. At that time, he exclaims ‘The Holy Spirit commanded the heavenly hosts (Open your doors o you Kings and be lifted up O you eternal doors).’
The purpose of the church to celebrate this holiday is apparent, as it means:
- Urging her children to thank and glorify the Lord, who revived our fallen nature and ascended and sat with Him in heavenly places (Eph 2: 6).
- Teaching them that the one who descended for our salvation is the one who also ascended above all the heavens in order to fill all (Eph 4: 9, 10), and they must rejoice because the Lord reigns over the nations. God sat on the throne of his glory (Psalm 47: 8).
- Explaining to them that this Jesus who rose from you to heaven will thus come (Acts 1:11) to judgment (Matthew 16:27).
Rites of the Feast
On this feast, there are special Psalies Watos and Adam, verses of cymbals, doxology, Praxis (Acts) response, a psalm and gospel response, and Aspasmos Watos and Adam.
There is also a special ascension hymn called “Afrek Etve,” which is chanted after the reading of the Acts and during the distribution of the Holy Mysteries. There is also a similar procession to that of the resurrection with the addition of “Ekhristos Analimepsis” to be chanted after “Ekhristos Anesti.” The difference is that after Ascension Feast, the procession only circuits 3 times inside the sanctuary, symbolizing the Lord’s Ascension into heaven.
The celebration of the feast and all its hymns are to be done throughout the period from the Thursday of ascension to the Sunday of Pentecost.
Explanation of the hymn Afrek Etve
The English translation of the hymn Afrek Etve is:
He bowed the heaven and came down and thick darkness was under His feet. He rode upon the Cherubim and flew; He flew on the wings of the wind.
Let the heavens rejoice and let the earth be glad. Let all the tribes of the orthodox believers rejoice.
For Christ the only-begotten God, ascended into the heavens.
Why is there a hymn for the ascension?
In Psalm 27, David the prophet says “In the time of trouble He shall hide me in His pavilion; In the secret place of His tabernacle He shall hide me … Therefore I will offer sacrifices of joy in His tabernacle; I will sing, yes, I will sing praises to the Lord” (Psalm 27: 5-6). The Lord fulfilled my salvation through His lifegiving cross and Holy resurrection then ascended to prepare a place for me, how can I not sing and praise with joy.
St Luke also tells us about the ascension that
“He was parted from them and carried up into heaven. And they worshiped Him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising and blessing God” (Luke 24:51 – 53).
The strange thing is that instead of gazing their eyes on this wonderous scene, they bowed down and as if they saw His glory and realized that He is worthy of worship and praise.
We see this scene during the liturgy immediately before communion, when the priest raises the paten and turns to the congregation twice while saying
“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”
The first time resembles the resurrection and the second symbolizes the ascension at which point the congregation emulate the disciples and bow down worshiping Him who is due all glory.
Notes on the text of the hymn
This beautiful hymn of the ascension, like many of the hymns in our Coptic church, uses poetic phrases to describe the majesty of the events.
He bowed the heaven and came down and thick darkness was under His feet.
This first scene described the first part of the hymn is taken from the bible (2 Samuel 22: 10-11 / Psalm 18:9-10) “He bowed the heavens also and came down with darkness under His feet. He rode upon a cherub and flew; and He was seen upon the wings of the wind.”
He lowered the heavens to come down and meet us on our earth.
He put thick darkness under His feet to hide the majesty of His divinity for if they knew and witnessed His glory, they would not have been able to crucify the Lord of Glory and salvation would not be complete. When He bowed all the heavens, we were able to say in the liturgy “when we are standing in Your Holy altar, we are counted as if standing in Heaven.”
Notes on the tune of the hymn
He bowed the heavens and He came down with thick darkness under His feet. He rode upon the Cherubim…
The intro of the hymn is slow and low expressing the humility of bowing the heavens and descending to the earth and thick darkness. The tune in the phrase “His feet” lingers and is chanted in a longer melody as though we are like the sinful woman kneeling, kissing His feet and worshiping and adoring Him.
The tune of “He rode upon the cherubim” is a very joyous melody expressing our feelings of be joining the Cherubim in witnessing His majesty
…and flew; He flew on the wings of the wind:
Repeated twice in the hymn as if we see Him ascending and taking our hearts with Him flying from the extent of joy and wonderment. This was echoed by St. Paul in Ephesians 2 “He raised us with Him.” It is a very joyful tune expressing the joy of heaven and earth because man before the ascension was from dust and to dust shall return but, in the ascension, Christ is raising us and flying with us up to Heaven.
As we get to the words “the wind,” the festive melodies and high notes of the previous words turn into a typical contemplative joyful tune used in many of our hymns expressing our emotions of flying through the wind.
The Paralex of the hymn
The 2nd Part of the hymn “Let the heavens rejoice…” is a Paralex that is chanted in the same tune as another hymn called “Kata Nikhoros” (the hymn of the resurrection chanted during communion). The reason the church uses the same tune in both the hymn of the resurrection and that of ascension is to maintain the same spiritual state and mood of the believers.
The Paralex consists of a tune repeated twice with a key word that separates the two repetitions. Even though the words of both the resurrection and ascension hymns are different, the keyword that is repeated is the same in both hymns – “Epkahi” or “earth”. In this, the church is signifying to us, the believers, the importance of the earth – which is us – in the goal of the whole story of salvation, resurrection, and ascension.
There is a focus word that separates each paragraph of the Paralex that highlights the occasion and it is the only one that is repeated 3 times with extreme focus and beautiful melismative tunes. That word is the occasion itself “He rose (3x)” or “He Ascended (3x)”
Contemplation on the hymn
O You who bowed the heavens and descended to us on the earth and the thick clouds under Your feet. Descend O my God to the depth of my barren land and take me with You to cross the winds which is the first heaven and the firmament which is the 2nd heaven. O Lord, take me to the eternal paradise of joy as You promised “He who overcomes, I will give him to be with Me in my throne” and behold I am fighting, struggling resisting glorifying, praising and chanting “Afrek etve …” “He bowed the heaven and came down and thick darkness was under His feet. He rode upon the Cherubim and flew; He flew on the wings of the wind.” Behold I desire that You carry me with You today and fly with me upon the wings of the wind and ascend with me for I have not a ladder like Jacob nor am I like Enoch whom You raised alive nor do I have a fiery chariot that You sent to Elijah and raised him to Yourself. I do not have the eyes of St. Stephen to gaze upon the heavens open and the Son of man sitting upon the right hand of the Father. I have, but a few, or many tunes that carry up whenever I praised You O my God.
The Feast of the Ascension teaches us also the principle of ascending. Spiritual life, or life with the Lord, is a perpetual ascension, a constant development upwards, till we arrive at the life of perfection. It is a continuous relationship to heaven. Let your treasure therefore be in heaven; and may every person train himself to the blessing of the Ascension in his life; being lifted up from the material level to the spiritual level. Whoever, with his or her heart and thought, is lifted up from the level of the earth and material things, will deserve to ascend and to be with Christ.
Sources and where to go to learn more:
- Mikhail, Deacon Albair Gamal, The Essentials in the Deacon’s Service, (Shobra, Egypt: Shikolani, 2002), p. 755, 756. Translated from Arabic by Bishoy K. R. Dawood and Ragy Sharkawy, edited by John Sedrak and Mariam Wanis.
- Rites of the Major and Minor Feasts – Father Isaiah Abdel-Sayed Farag
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