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 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. We may experience such blessedness even now by uniting ourselves to Christ even as we live and breathe in this world.
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 enable us to shine with heavenly glory.
Had Christ been simply a great religious teacher, He could not have conquered death or enabled us to share in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity. Those who claim to admire the Savior as merely an excellent human being actually reject Him, for they deny the true identity of the God-Man Who unites humanity and divinity in Himself. 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 bring those made of the dust of the Earth into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.
The divine brilliance of Christ’s Ascension is entirely different from the illusion of trying to raise ourselves up 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, we are eager to distract ourselves from facing the truth. We do that by seeking fulfillment in created things that can never heal our souls. Doing so only serves to make us even more enslaved to self-serving illusions that alienate us from God, our neighbors, and ourselves. No wonder so many people know the misery of captivity to disordered desires that hold them captive to vain pursuits of pride, power, and possessions that will never satisfy them. That is a path of inevitable descent to fear, anxiety, and despair.
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 enduring the ultimate descent to 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 the inevitable consequences of sin.
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 God and about what it means to find fulfillment as a human person. He does not ascend by taking vengeance upon His enemies, causing those who opposed Him to suffer, or serving Himself, but by suffering the consequences of their sins, of which He was in no way guilty. The divine glory of His Ascension shines brilliantly in contrast to the illusions of those who assume God must be just like them in their spiritual blindness. 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 darkness and alienation. 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 marred by war, mass murder, disease, and all the brokenness known by the children of Adam and Eve.
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 away from the false gods we have welcomed into our hearts and toward the One Who overcame the very worst the corrupt 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 which we are so strongly inclined to make the driving force of our lives.
In order to ascend with Him in holiness, we must abandon the hypocritical spirituality of those who corrupt Christianity into a way of raising ourselves up in this world, whether in personal relationships, the life of the Church, or any other sphere of life. Nothing will keep us wedded to the spiritual decay of the fallen world more than perverting the way of our ascended Lord into a justification for crucifying our neighbors 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.
In order to ascend in holiness with Him, we must reject all the proud fantasies that distract us from true faithfulness in the present circumstances of our lives as we take the small steps toward the Kingdom that we presently have the strength to take. In our families, friendships, and workplaces, and also in our parish, we must humble ourselves by putting the needs of others before our own desires. We must refuse to allow thoughts that tempt us to self-centeredness to take root in our hearts, for they will make it impossible for to become like Christ in self-emptying love for our neighbors. The only way to ascend with Christ is to unite ourselves to Him in holiness from the depths of our hearts.
Christ prayed to the Father that His followers “may be one, even as We are one.” Contrary to popular opinion, it is not possible to pursue the Christian life as an isolated individual. 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, by His grace, we will too as we serve Him together in His Body, the Church, by doing 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. Let us make His Ascension the lens through which we see every dimension of our life together and every aspect of our lives in this world. He has already ascended. Now we must 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.