Becoming Truly Human by Ascending with Christ: Sunday of the After-Feast of the Ascension in the Orthodox Church

Acts 20:16-18, 28-36; John 17:1-13

             Forty days after His glorious resurrection, our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ ascended in glory into heaven and sat at the right hand of God the Father.  He did so as One Who is fully divine and fully human, One Person with two natures. He ascended with His glorified, resurrected body, which still bore the wounds of His crucifixion.  The Ascension shows that through Him our humanity has come to participate by grace in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  He has made us “partakers of the divine nature” who may share in His fulfillment of the human person in God’s image and likeness.

Today we commemorate the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea.  They rejected the teaching of Arius that Jesus Christ was not truly divine, but a kind of lesser god created by the Father at a certain point.  The Council declared, as we confess to this day in the Nicene Creed, that our Savior is “the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all worlds. Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father, by Whom all things were made.”  The Fathers of Nicaea saw clearly that the One Who brought us into the eternal life of God must Himself be eternal and divine.  Only God could make human persons “partakers of the divine nature” by grace.

Had Christ been merely a creature or an especially impressive religious teacher or example, He would have remained captive to the corruptions of the world as we know it.  He could have taught and inspired people, but would not have been able to conquer death or make a path for us to the fulfillment of our humanity in the Holy Trinity.  Those who view the Savior as simply an excellent human being actually diminish and reject Him, for they become blind to His identity as the God-Man Who unites humanity and divinity in Himself.  Teachers and exemplars have their place, but only the Son of God makes us participants in life eternal.  Only He could say to the Father, “Glorify Me in Your own presence with the glory which I had with You before the world was made.”

The divine glory shining brilliantly through Christ’s ascension is entirely different from the power and fame that people find so appealing in our world of corruption.  Since we all know how weak and insignificant we are in the larger scheme of things, we so easily make false gods to distract us from the truth about ourselves, including the inevitability of death.  Entrusting ourselves to any created thing leads inevitably to idolatry, for it amounts to worshiping a false god, regardless of whether we call it a religion. Doing so will also lead us to demonize our enemies, real or imagined, because we often feel better about ourselves when we have someone else to condemn.  That is surely why so many people become slaves to fear, anger, and hatred toward those they view as their rivals in getting all the glory in this world by being on the right side of conflicts.  It is why people fail to see their neighbors as living icons of the Lord due to their nationality, politics, religion, or race.

Those who embrace such darkness in their souls make themselves blind to the glory of our ascended Lord, Who went up to heaven only after dying on the Cross, being buried in a tomb, and descending into Hades.  He rose from the dead because He had humbled Himself to the point of accepting rejection, torture, and crucifixion as a blasphemer and a traitor.  Worldly rulers mocked Him as a failure and made Him a public example of what happened to people who dared to challenge the proud authority of Rome, even though His Kingdom is clearly not of this world.

Christ endured all this, not simply as a religious teacher or virtuous person, but as the eternal Son of God Who spoke the universe into existence. The unfathomable humility of the Savior destroys our usual assumptions about what it means to be powerful and successful. The divine glory revealed so clearly at His ascension shines brilliantly in contrast to what passes for honor in a world that chooses to remain in the dark night of the tomb.  If we dare to identify ourselves with Him, we must open the eyes of our souls to the light of His heavenly glory and refuse to live as those who wander in spiritual blindness.  In order to celebrate the Ascension with integrity, we must ascend with Him into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity even as we live and breathe in a world that remains very far from the fullness of His Kingdom.

By rising into heavenly glory as the God-Man, Christ has shown us what it means to become truly human in the divine image and likeness.   In order to unite ourselves to Him, we must reorient our desires for fulfillment away from the false gods of this world and toward the One Who overcame the worst the darkened world could do in order make us participants in the eternal day of His heavenly reign.  The contrast between the heights of heaven and the mundane realities of our lives is obviously very great. The point of division is not, however, that we are ordinary people with ordinary problems.  It is, instead, that we have not united ourselves to Christ to the point that every aspect of our life in this world has become a brilliant icon of His salvation.  There is too much in each of us that has refused to ascend in holiness with our Lord.

Of course, this calling is very high and no one may claim to have fulfilled it.  God is infinitely holy and the journey to become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect is truly eternal.  No matter where we are on that path, we must all grapple seriously with sins that hold us back from embracing the fulfillment of the human person made possible by our Lord’s Ascension.   Our calling is to conform ourselves to Christ such that His radiant glory shines through us, even as we face the challenges of our daily lives and struggle to resist the constant temptation to put our trust elsewhere.

In order to ascend with Him in holiness, we must abandon the hypocritical spirituality of those who corrupt Christianity into a way of praising themselves and condemning others.  Nothing will keep us wedded to the spiritual decay of the fallen world more than perverting the way of Christ into a weapon for serving our pride as we seek earthly glory at the expense of neighbors whom we crucify in our thoughts, words, and deeds.  He calls us to rise up from the corruption of the world, not to fall even deeper into it.  As well, we should not focus on performing spectacular acts of holiness, for that leads only to prideful fantasies that distract us from faithfulness in the here and now.  We must focus on the small steps we are capable of right now in our current circumstances, regardless of whether we are entirely pleased with them.  We must humble ourselves to put the needs of others before our own preferences in our families, friendships, and workplaces, as well as in our parish.  We must bear witness in our society to the sublime dignity of the human person in God’s image and likeness which our Lord has fulfilled in His Ascension.  He calls everyone to find their restoration in Him, and we must learn to see all our neighbors as His beautiful and unique icons, regardless of any worldly division and characteristic.

Christ prayed to the Father that His followers “may be one, even as We are one.”  If we want to ascend with Him in holiness, we must not pretend that we can do that as isolated individuals.  The Church is Christ’s Body and we are members of Him together.  He ascended with His body and we will too by serving Him in the Church as we do what needs to be done for the flourishing of our small parish.  We ascend into the heavenly Kingdom whenever we “lay aside all earthly cares” in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy.  Nourished by His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, let us join ourselves to the great Self-offering of the Savior in our common life, for it is only in Him—our risen and ascended Lord—that we may enter into the heavenly glory for which He created us in His image and likeness.  He has already ascended.  Let us go up with Him together even as we live and breathe in a world that so desperately needs a sign of its salvation.

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