Acts 20:16-18, 28-36; John 17:1-13
Forty days after His 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. Our Lord’s Ascension reveals that we, who are merely human, may participate by grace in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity and share in His fulfillment of the human person in God’s image and likeness. While such blessedness will be fulfilled in the future consummation of the Kingdom, we may know it even now by uniting ourselves to Christ in holiness.
It is not by accident that we also commemorate today 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 brings us into the eternal life of God must Himself be eternal and divine. No mere creature could ever make human persons “partakers of the divine nature” by grace.
Had Christ been simply an impressive religious teacher or example of piety, He would have remained captive to all the corruptions of the world as we know it. He could have taught and led people, but could not have conquered death or enabled us to share in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity. Those who view the Savior as simply an excellent human being actually diminish and reject Him, for they deny the true identity of the God-Man Who unites humanity and divinity in Himself. Teachers and exemplars have their place, but 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.” Only He can make us radiant with holy glory.
The divine brilliance of Christ’s Ascension is entirely different from the illusion of raising ourselves up over others according to the standards of a world that has not yet entered into the joy of the heavenly Kingdom. Since we all know how weak and insignificant we are in the larger scheme of things in a world enslaved to the fear of death, there is a powerful temptation to make others do our will as a distraction from facing the truth about ourselves. Doing so makes us even weaker, even more enslaved to the self-serving illusions that alienate us from God, our neighbors, and ourselves. No wonder so many people today have become slaves to fear, anger, and resentment toward those they see, not as living icons of Christ, but simply as pawns to be used or enemies to be crushed.
Embracing such darkness in our souls will make us 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 purely out of selfless love and compassion for His broken and suffering children, who were held captive by sin and death. Religious and political leaders mocked Him as a failure and used Him as a public example of what they did to people who dared to challenge their quest for power, even though His Kingdom is clearly not of this world.
Christ endured all this as the eternal Son of God Who spoke the universe into existence. The unfathomable humility of the Savior destroys popular assumptions about both God and what it means to find fulfillment as a human person. He does not ascend by manipulating or taking vengeance upon His enemies, but by freely suffering the full consequences of all human rejection of God. The divine glory revealed so clearly at His Ascension shines brilliantly in contrast to the illusions of those who 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 and in the resulting alienation from one another that it produces. In order to celebrate the Ascension with integrity, we must rise up with Him into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity even as we remain in a world that is far from embracing the joy 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. That is not because we are ordinary people with ordinary problems. It is because 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 much in each of us that has refused to ascend in holiness with our Lord.
Our calling to rise with Christ into heavenly glory is obviously 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 what holds us back from embracing the fulfillment of the human person made possible by our Lord’s Ascension. We must conform our character to Christ’s such that His radiant glory shines through us as we embrace the challenges of finding healing for our souls from the disordered desires that tempt us to look for fulfillment in false gods that distract us from facing reality.
In order to ascend with Him in holiness, we must abandon the hypocritical spirituality of those who corrupt Christianity into a way of gaining power and prestige in this world, whether in personal relationships, the life of the Church, or public affairs. Nothing will keep us wedded to the spiritual decay of the fallen world more than perverting the way of our ascended Lord into a weapon for serving ourselves and seeking power at the expense of neighbors whom we crucify in our thoughts, words, and deeds. Our Savior calls us to rise up from the corruption of the world, not to fall even deeper into it through spiritual delusion.
We will ascend in holiness with Him not by embracing prideful fantasies that distract us from true faithfulness in the here and now, but by focusing on taking the small steps we are capable of in our present circumstances. That means humbling ourselves to put meeting the needs of others before our own desires in our families, friendships, and workplaces, as well as in our parish. That means guarding our thoughts and rejecting those that tempt us not to invest ourselves in the healing brought by the One Who is fully God and fully human.
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 think that we can do so as isolated individuals. The Church is Christ’s Body and we are members of Him together. He is the vine and we are the branches. The Lord 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, we must 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 together with Him as we find liberation from slavery to our passions and share more fully in the salvation that He has brought to the world.