Sunday, June 1, 2014

Let Us Ascend with the God-Man: Homily for the Feast of the Ascension in the Orthodox Church

            Sometimes we are all set our sights too low, expecting too little of ourselves and others.  We sell ourselves short and do a disservice not only to ourselves but to everyone around us.  When we aim low, we cannot expect to achieve high goals or to become the people God calls us to be.  The season of the Ascension is a powerful antidote to such low expectations, for it reveals the great glory and dignity that Jesus Christ has given us.  Through our Lord’s Ascension, we rise with Him literally to the heights of the heavenly Kingdom.
            Forty days after His resurrection, the Son of God ascended into heaven.   In Him, humanity and divinity are united in one Person; He goes up into heaven as the God-Man.   The Son shares in the glory that He had with the Father and the Holy Spirit before the creation of the world.  And He brings our humanity into that glory with Him.  There is perhaps no more powerful sign of our salvation than the Ascension, for it makes clear that our Lord has raised us—not only from the tomb, not only from hades—but into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  Our calling to become participants in God, partakers of the divine nature by grace, is fulfilled in our ascended Lord.
            The Ascension also makes clear that Jesus Christ is not merely a great teacher or example or even an angel or lesser god.  As the Fathers of the Council of Nicaea proclaimed, He is light of light, very God of very God, of one essence with the Father, the only begotten Son of God.   For only One who is truly divine and eternal can ascend into heaven and bring us into the divine, eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  That is why the Council of Nicaea rejected the teaching of the heretic Arius, who did not think that the Son was fully divine.   That is why the Orthodox Church has always disagreed with those who deny our Lord’s full divinity or His full humanity.  For only One who is truly both God and human can bring humans into the life of God.
            Unfortunately, we often view Jesus Christ and ourselves in ways that reflect our low expectations.  If we want a Savior who merely teaches and models a good life, we might become a bit better by listening to Him.  But human teachers and examples cannot conquer death and cannot raise us with them into eternal life.  Many continue to want a Lord in their own image:  a teacher of secret spiritual truths to an elite club; a social or political activist of whatever ideology; or a philosopher who speaks with wisdom.  There are those in every generation who claim to discover a secret Jesus who looks pretty much like them and their preferred way of life.   
            Countless martyrs going back to the original disciples, however, did not go to their deaths out of loyalty to just another teacher or politician. They looked death in the eye and did not blink because they knew that their Lord was God, that He had conquered death and would share His victory with them in heaven.  In a matter of days, Christ’s disciples went from total despair and defeat at His crucifixion to the astounding joy of Pascha and Pentecost.  These were life-changing experiences that gave them the strength to sacrifice their own lives for the Lord.  Even the most admired human beings die and are usually forgotten; generations of martyrs do not give their lives for them.  But the life of the risen and ascended Son of God continues in the Church, especially in the witness of the martyrs who share in a victory that is not of this world.
            We share in the eternal life of Christ through His Body, the Church.  The Son prayed to the Father that His followers “may be one as We are…that they all may be one, as You, Father are in Me, and I in You; that they may also be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.  And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one…”
            Here is a very high, very exalted view of what it means to be a human being in the image and likeness of God.  In Christ’s Body, the Church, we are to be one in Him, showing forth the unity of holiness and love that are characteristic of the Holy Trinity.  Christ has given us His glory, a share in life eternal, the life to which He has ascended as the Son of God. And that glory, that eternal life, is never an individual undertaking; it is the life of unity in Christ, of His Body, of which we are all members by baptism. 
            No doubt, we all fall short of the fullness of life in Christ.  We often would rather not ascend in Him to a life of holiness, for we prefer to do things which are beneath us, which are not fitting for those created in the image and likeness of God, for those called to live the life of heaven even now.   Instead of dwelling on what is true, noble, just, and pure, we too often dwell on what inflames our passions, our self-centered desires.  Instead of recognizing that our salvation is a life together in the Body of Christ, we try to live as isolated individuals, continuing the division from one another that has beset humanity since Adam and Eve.  Instead of seeing that we participate in Christ through our brothers and sisters in the faith, our neighbors, and every human being whom we encounter, we define ourselves over against one another and thus make ourselves less than truly human in the image and likeness of the Holy Trinity.
            It might be possible to follow the guidance of a teacher in isolation from others, on our own terms, according to whatever private interpretations seem right to us.  But it is impossible to embrace the fullness of life in our Risen and Ascended Lord as  isolated individuals as though our faith means whatever we want it to mean.  We can interpret the words of a merely human teacher however we want, but the One Who has conquered death and ascended into heaven requires something different. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the Alpha and Omega of the universe.  The point is not to try to make Him in our image, to water Him down into someone Whom we can accept and understand on the terms of our own culture or preferences.  Instead, the point is to fall before Him in worship, to accept in humility the great blessing of the resurrected, ascended life which He gives us, and to live faithfully in the unity of the Church as we grow in Him.
            Let us celebrate the Ascension, then, by embracing the great dignity that is ours in the God-Man Who has gone up to heaven.  Let us pay close attention to our thoughts, words, and deeds, and do only that which help us live as those called to the glory of the Kingdom.  Let us make of our life in the Church an icon of the Holy Trinity, a Communion of love and holiness, for we are truly members of a Body whose life is in one another.  Let us treat every human being we meet with the same love and care that we would show to the Lord Himself.  
            Yes, we really can live this way because we are not simply following the teachings of a human being; instead, we are participating even now in the eternal life of the One Who has conquered death, the tomb, and hades, and taken our humanity into heaven.  If Jesus Christ can do that, we may put no limits on what He can do with us. For the Lord has ascended into heaven, and He will take us with Him if we will only embrace—with faith, humility and repentance-- the great glory that He has brought to us as those created in His image and likeness.

            This is not a message for a few select souls or for people with no problems who seem to have everything in life.  It is good news for us all, no matter how broken, imperfect, and difficult our lives may be.  Christ rose again and ascended with His wounds for our salvation.  He turned death itself into a pathway to eternal life, and He can transform  even our worst struggles and pains into our greater personal participation in the new life of the Kingdom.  No, we cannot do that by ourselves any more than we can raise the dead or rise to heaven by our own power.  But in our ascended Lord, all things are possible.  Were He simply a great human personality kept alive only in our memories, we would have no hope beyond the world as we know it.  But in the God-Man Who conquers death for our sake and deifies our humanity, we may live even now the life of heaven as a foretaste of the eternal peace and joy that are not of this world.  That is what He calls and enables each and every one of us to do through a life of holiness in His Body, the Church.  Yes, He has ascended in glory.  The only question is whether we will follow Him.     

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