Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Ascension: Our Destiny in Christ

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


You were born, as was your will, O our God.
You revealed Yourself, in Your good pleasure.
You suffered in the flesh, and rose from the dead,
trampling down death by death!
Fulfilling all things, you ascended in glory ...
(Vespers of Ascension)

Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven,
and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate,
and suffered, and was buried.
And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures,
and ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father.
(Nicene Creed)

The two texts above - one from the Feast of the Ascension and the other a portion of the Nicene Creed - are wonderful expressions of the great mystery of the "descent" and "ascent" of the Son of God. The eternal Son of God becomes the Son of Man, descending into our world to live among us and to teach us about, and prepare us for, the Kingdom of God. This is what we call the Incarnation. This movement of descent is only completed when Christ is crucified and enters the very realm of death on our behalf. There is "nowhere" further to descend (in)to. Thus, there are no limits to the love of God for His creatures, for the descent of Christ into death itself is "for our salvation." The Son of God will search for Adam and Eve in the very realm of Sheol/Hades. He will rescue them and liberate them as representative of all humankind, languishing in "the valley of death." Since death cannot hold the sinless - and therefore deathless - Son of God, He begins His ascent to the heavenly realm with His resurrection from the dead. And He fulfills this paschal mystery with His glorious ascension.

As St. Paul writes: "He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things." (EPH. 4:10) The One who ascended, however, is now both God and man, our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the incarnate, crucified, risen, and glorified Jesus Christ who is now seated at "the right hand of the Father," far above the heavens. It is the glorified flesh of the Incarnate Word of God which has entered into the very bosom of the Trinity in the Person of Christ. As St. Leo the Great, the pope of Rome (+461) taught:

With all due solemnity we are commemorating that day on which our poor human nature was carried up, in Christ, above all the hosts of Heaven, above all the ranks of angels, beyond the highest Heavenly powers to the very throne of God the Father.

This is simultaneously our ascension and our glorification, since we are united to Christ through holy Baptism as members of His Body. Therefore, St. Paul can further write: "For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God." (COL. 3:3) Out of our physical sight, we now "see" the glorified Christ through the eyes of faith. St. Leo further explains how important this spiritual insight is:

For such is the power of great minds, such the light of truly believing souls, that they put unhesitating faith in what is not seen with the bodily eyes; they fix their desires on what is beyond sight. Such fidelity could never be born in our hearts, nor could anyone be justified by faith, if our salvation lay only in what is visible.

The Feast of the Ascension is not a decline from the glory of Pascha. It is, rather, the fulfillment of Pascha, and a movement upward toward the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the joyful revelation of our destiny in Christ. To return to the opening theme of the marvelous acts of God moving from the Incarnation to the Ascension, I would like to turn to St. Leo one more time for his understanding of that entire movement:

It is upon this ordered structure of divine acts that we have been firmly established, so that the grace of God may show itself still more marvelous when, in spite of the withdrawal from men's sight of everything that is rightly felt to command their reverence, faith does not fail, hope is not shaken, charity does not grow cold.

I would like to further note that within my memory, at least, we never had as many faithful present for this Feast than we had yesterday evening at the Vesperal Liturgy. It is always wonderful when a Feast is ... festal! And it is most festal when many faithful members are present worshiping and glorifying God. According to St. Luke, once the disciples beheld Christ ascend into heaven, "they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God." (LK. 24:52) The "temple" is our common place of worship. Hopefully, we too, will continually be in the temple blessing God.

Fr. Steven