Dear Parish Faithful,
“The Lord said to my lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool’.” (PS. 110:1)
We have recently celebrated Ascension Thursday. That places us in the time of the “Afterfeast,” with the “Leavetaking” ahead of us this coming Friday. And, of course, we have the glorious Feast of Pentecost to look forward to next Sunday. For the time being, then, we continue to celebrate the glorification of Christ and in so doing we celebrate our own glorification, for the Lord lifted up into heaven our human nature, initially assumed in the Incarnation. Or, as Fr. Thomas Hopko wrote with a certain precision:
The doctrinal meaning of the ascension is the glorification of human nature, the reunion of man with God. It is indeed, the very penetration of man into the inexhaustible depths of divinity.
In his book The First Day of the New Creation, Prof. Veselin Kesich summarized the link between the Resurrection and the Ascension like this:
The resurrection of Christ is an act of God in history, the final eschatological event. The resurrection is never presented in the New Testament as an isolated event, standing by itself. It is linked with the cross which preceded it, and with the ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit, which would follow. Just as the meaning of the cross is revealed in the resurrection, so the ascension shows us the meaning of Christ’s bodily resurrection. The resurrection gives meaning and unity to the events of the past and the future.
As St. John Chyrsostom said: “We who seemed unworthy of the earth are now raised to heaven.” In continuity with this, Fr. George Florovsky (+1979) wrote the following:
The Lord not only opened to man the entrance to heaven, not only appeared before the face of God on our behalf and for our sake, but likewise ‘transferred man’ to high places.
Christ is not absent because He has ascended. He is present, but in a different manner than during His earthly ministry. He is with God, so He is actually everywhere. He has transcended all limitations of time and space. He is forever present – “Lo, I am with you always, even until the end of the world” – through the Holy Spirit “Who fills all things.”
In what I consider one of the best short meditations on the Ascension of Christ, Fr. Lev Gillet writes the following:
Jesus does not return to his Father in isolation. It was the incorporeal Logos that descended among men. But today it is the Word made flesh, at the same time true God and true man, that enters the Kingdom of heaven. Jesus takes there with him the human nature in which he is clothed. He opens the gates of the Kingdom to humanity. We take possession, in some way by anticipation, of the blessings which are offered to us and possible for us. Places are reserved for us in the Kingdom provided we continue faithful. Our presence is desired and awaited there.
So the ascension renders the thought of heaven more present and more alive for us. Do we think enough of our permanent dwelling-place? For most Christians heaven is envisaged as a kind of postscript, an appendix to a book of which life on earth constitutes the actual text. But the contrary is true. Our earthly life is merely the preface to the book. Life in heaven will be the text – a text without end.
A wonderful passage, full of life and hope! Why, then, is it seemingly impossible to lift up our minds to heaven where our lives are “hid with Christ in God” and to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God?” (COL. 3:1-3) Is it because we are enchanted with the beauty of the material creation to such an extent that we already feel that we are experiencing “heaven on earth” here and now? Or is it that we are so caught up in a life of compassionate and so-suffering love for the suffering ones of this world – that we see Christ in every human face – that our vision and energy are contained within the sadness of this world? In my humble opinion, this all sounds “excusable.” Or at least these are the types of activity that God calls us to in order to make us worthy “citizens of heaven.”
But what if we are so enamored of the things of this world that do not have much to do with either beauty or co-suffering love – ambition, self-promotion, crass materialism, etc. – that thoughts of heaven are dismissed as irrelevant? Or if our thoughts of heaven extend no longer than the duration of the Liturgy on Sunday morning, quickly to yield to the distractions of our post-Liturgy planning for the day? Or perhaps heaven is no more than a vague wish that somehow, some part of us can survive the inevitable experience of death?
In the light of the glorious Feast of the Ascension of our Lord, I hope that these are fair questions that deserve some meditation and reflection.