The Ascension of the Lord

Dear brothers and sisters, S prazdnikom!

Greetings on this joyful feast of the Lord’s Ascension, in which the economy of salvation finds wondrous consummation, as the humanity in which the Lord was clothed in His Divine Incarnation is exalted to the heavens, in which flesh had never dwelt before.

In the Ascension of the humanity of the God-Man, assumed in the womb of the Most Pure Mother of God, the Saviour calls us to physically be with Him in our own fleshly humanity in the glorified resurrectional-life of the age to come.

His Ascension was infinitely more than the completion of the return-journey of human nature to restored communion with God, as the Word did not become flesh to simply restore the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve to Paradise – to the earthly Eden from which our first-father and first mother had been exiled – but to exalt humanity to the very height of the heavens.

The Son of God, obedient to the Father clothed Himself in humility, in the humanity which He Himself had created, so that the created physicality of human-nature itself might be exulted and enthroned in heaven, at the right-hand of the Father.

In the litia we chanted,

“Thou hast renewed in Thyself Adam’s nature, which had gone down into the lower parts of the earth, and Thou didst raise it up above every principality and authority today…”

… and in the ninth ode of the canon of the feast, we chant –

“The majesty of Him Who became poor in the flesh hath been manifestly taken up above the heavens; and our fallen nature hath been honoured by sitting with the Father.”

The Church Fathers described this human nature to be the deadly bait by which Hades was defeated and decimated as it eagerly sought to swallow the Saviour, the God-Man, when He breathed His last breath upon the Cross. The Lord of Life was deadly-poison in the nethermost regions of darkness, which were unable to contain Him, and were made to spew forth not only Christ the Giver of Life, but also the souls of the righteous-dead held captive there.

But, having defeated death and hell, the Saviour did not elect to lay aside the humanity and flesh that proved so deadly to death. The ‘robe of Adam’ had not just been a temporary or disposable property or costume, but was destined to be the eternal, glorified sign of man’s whole redemption and total restoration in Christ.

Exalted beyond the heavens, in Christ’s flesh, humanity would be worshipped and adored in His Divine-Humanity by the bodiless powers of heaven and by the saints.

“Do you see then to what height of glory human nature has been raised? Is it not from earth to heaven? Is it not from corruption to incorruption? How hard would not someone toil in order to become the intimate friend of a corruptible king here below? But we, although we were alienated and hostile in our intent by evil deeds, have not only been reconciled to God the Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ, but we have also soared aloft to sonship, and now our nature is worshipped in the heavens by every creature seen and unseen.”

St Ephrem the Syrian

The last phrase from these words of St Ephrem seem almost impossible to us, as our nature is not only restored, made incorruptible and reconciled with God, but is worshipped in the heavens because Christ has made it His own nature!

That which was not only unknown, but hitherto seemed impossible came to pass, and as the bodiless powers of heaven beheld Christ ascending in glory, they witnessed something new: human-flesh ascending as the Son of God was exalted not only as God, but also as man.

The troparia of the  third ode of the canon speak of the wonder and astonishment of the bodiless angelic powers on beholding this sight:

“The ranks of angels, O Saviour, on beholding man’s nature going up together with Thee, were amazed and ceaselessly praised Thee.

The choirs of angels were amazed, O Christ, as they beheld Thee taken up with Thy body, and they praised Thy holy Ascension.

As the Saviour ascended in the flesh unto the Father, the arrays of the angels were astonished at Him and cried: Glory to Thine Ascension, O Christ.”

And in the Praises of matins, the angels poetically ask,

“What sight is this? He that is seen is endowed with the likeness of mankind’s form, yet as the incarnate God doth He now ascend far above the bounds of heaven’s heights.”

And, as we celebrate this feast, we perceive it as the signpost and token of the promise and inheritance to which the Saviour calls us as physical as well as spiritual beings.

Yet, for now, as the saints worship the ascended Saviour in His humanity as well as His divinity, they only dwell in heaven as bodiless, spiritual beings, and like all humans other than the Most Holy Mother of God – bodily translated into heaven at her assumption – they must await the end of time before they can dwell physically with the ascended Lord in their glorified and renewed bodies, but this yet unrealised life is the Lord’s calling to all of us through His glorious Ascension.

He does not jealously guard and preserve the reality of His Ascension for Himself alone, but in the eternity of the age to come desires each of us to follow Him and His Most-Pure Mother to heavenly life in the totality of restored, transfigured and ascended, created-being, saying to us,

“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”

John 14:3

The Saviour, seeks the whole and complete restoration of humanity made in His image and likeness, in which the first-father and first mother were intended to grow in perfection and glory, reflecting the glory and holiness of God, as do the angelic ranks.

In our baptism, we have been initiated into the Cross and Resurrection, but we are also called to the ascension also – labouring in prayer, fasting and spiritual toil; through the struggle for purity of soul, mind and body; through spiritual and holy living; aspiring to become vessels of Grace and living temples of the Holy Spirit.

His Life-Giving Cross and Passion, His victory over death and hell, His third-day Resurrection, are steps on the journey to the Mount of Olives and His Ascension in glory, but like every aspect of salvation, the Lord – has given us liberty, freedom and choice – and does not force salvation upon us, even though He desires every human being who has and will have existed since Adam and Eve, to be saved and be coheirs of the Resurrection, Ascension and translation to the glory of His Kingdom.

But – this very much depends on our will reflecting and being conformed to the Lord’s will; our lives being shaped by the Gospel; our spiritual and intellectual faculties, physical existence, and very being demonstrating the indwelling of God in us – in short, the struggle for holiness as Christ is allowed to act in us and through us.

Though the resurrection and Ascension are our calling and vocation, day by day, we must decide if we wish to inherit the Kingdom to which the Lord has called us, and whether we desire to receive the great gifts that the Lord has bequeathed for our eternal inheritance.

On this feast, it is not enough for us to simply outwardly rejoice and celebrate,

“Let us all make feast, and with one accord let us cry out with jubilation and clap our hands rejoicing.”

Unless their spiritual meaning is reflected and made real in our lives, feasts will neither save us nor bring us a share in the life of the Resurrection and Ascension, rather only constant, abiding, and dedicated selfless life in Christ – the Way, the Truth and the Life, what St Paul spoke of, when he said,

“…it is no longer I that live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20)

If we wish to follow the Lord, and mount the very heights of heaven, we must be united to the risen and ascended Christ.

The choice is ours. 

May God bless you all.

In Christ – Hieromonk Mark