• Menu

On the Ascension of Christ

Seventh Sunday of Pascha; First Ecumenical Council / St. Pachomius the Great / Acts 20.16-18, 20.28-36; John 17.1-13

F/S/HS.  Brothers and sisters, three days ago we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord.  It is truly one of my favorite feasts, in part because it is a feast so deeply mystical in nature.  I choose that word mystical very intentionally, as it is of the greatest of mysteries what happens at our Lord’s Ascension into heaven.

Shortly before Jesus entered into His Passion, He prayed the following words to His Father, before His Disciples: And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever—the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you…. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you….  When He, the Spirit of Truth has come, He will guide you into all truth …  He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you.

Only in hindsight, after our Lord’s Resurrection and Ascension, and after Pentecost, will the Disciples fully comprehend what Jesus meant when he prayed those words.  Only then will they understand why their Lord had to leave them and ascend to heaven, in order that Another, the Spirit of Truth, would return to them and live deep within their soul, guiding them into all Truth.

Had Jesus not left them, the Spirit of Truth, God’s Holy Spirit, would never have come.  Nor would the Disciples or the early church, or us, have the doctrine of the Holy Trinity that we now have and so cherish.

Sisters and brothers, I will never forget a particular comment made by one of the hundreds of nuns that attended Elder Ephraim’s funeral three years ago.  All of us were at Saint Anthony’s monastery, accompanying Geronda’s body out to the chapel especially hewn for him, where he would be entombed.  This nun leaned over to me and said, Father Daniel, he is more real to us now than when he was alive and with us.  Finally, he is freed from his earthly body to roam amongst us throughout the world, to bring us comfort and to teach us as does the Holy Spirit, in all truth.  We’ve felt him and seen him repeatedly since he reposed a few days ago.  It’s a great mystery—In his absence he is more present to us than ever.

And then a similar comment earlier this year, from Gerondissa Michaila, abyss of St. Paisius monastery in Arizona, who told me that over the past three years Elder Ephraim has appeared to her nuns at least three times, and that one of her nuns saw him walking down their hallway not long ago, his back to them.  He comes to us and teaches us, Gerondissa Michaila stated.  He comes and comforts us in our time of need.

A great mystery dear ones—that someone we’ve loved can be as present to us following their death as they were when they were alive and amongst us.  So it was for the Disciples, who experienced the presence of Jesus following His Ascension and Pentecost in a most mysterious way—by way of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth who comes to forever more abide deep within them.  Which is why it was imperative that He depart from His Disciples and Ascend from them in glory, to sit at the right hand of the Father Almighty. 

And there in heaven the mystery of our Lord’s Ascension took on a most remarkable grandeur, now affecting the entire cosmos.  Three days ago, while celebrating the Feast of Holy Ascension, I shared with some of our children certain phrases from our hymnology and the synaxarion, about the mystery of Jesus’ Ascension.   Let me share these phrases once again, so moving are they to my soul.

At His Ascension, chants our hymnology, Jesus went up with a shout, at the sound of a trumpet.  Upon entering heaven, what did the angels see?  They saw a man more exalted than they.  What!  A human body more exalted than the angels!  Ancient pre-Christian cosmology believed that the heavenly realm, composed of angels and multitudes of celestial beings, was vastly more exalted than a mere earthly body.  Spirit always trumped mere mortal human flesh!  Spirit is immortal; earthly flesh utterly transitory and inferior, the ancients believed.

But then our synaxarion goes on to share something else about this human body of Jesus, that the angels were amazed at the blood-red color of His flesh, a reference to our Ascended Lord’s pierced hands and side, fleshy and red with blood. 

O dear ones, wherever this earthly life crucifies us with heartaches, tribulations, and afflictions, what comfort to know that our Ascended Lord retains His own suffering, that He introduced this fleshly blood-red suffering into the life of the Holy Trinity in order that the Godhead might experience the nature of human suffering; and that the Spirit of Truth who will come and abide with us is therefore infinitely familiar with our heartache, tribulations, and afflictions.  Is it any wonder that this Holy Spirit will be called the Comforter!

A pause here, brothers and sisters.  Many of the early church heresies were deemed exactly that—heresies—because they falsely taught the supremacy of Jesus as divine spirit and not a flesh-and-blood human being.  Hence the supremacy of spiritual realities as superior to earthly and material realities.  How could God Incarnate be simultaneously a mere mortal flesh-and-blood man!  He was and is exactly that—both God and man.  To teach otherwise was and is heresy.

Our Lord’s Ascension, then—His retaining His fleshly identity and the marks of His blood-red crucifixion—became central to all the teachings of early Christianity that sought to strike a balance between the spiritual and the material.  Material reality is infused with spiritual reality.  Hence the iconophiles trumped the iconoclasts precisely because paint on a board could convey sublime and heavenly mysteries.

Which helps us make so much more sense of the Apostle Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20: Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?

Which is why our Orthodox tradition exhorts us to take care of our physical fleshy temples while we live in them, to properly nourish and work our body.  Why then would we disregard our bodily temple by polluting it, or engaging in gluttonous and slothful habits, or sinful carnal pleasuring?

Which is why those who are not married are exhorted to maintain chastity rather than succumb to the bodily temptation to fornicate with another body.  Which is why those who enter into holy marriage, between a man and a woman, are taught to maintain bodily fidelity by keeping marital relations within that holy covenant. 

Our physical fleshly bodies, sisters and brothers, are the temple wherein our Lord’s Holy Spirit comes to dwell, given to us at Pentecost following His Ascension.  The value of this fleshly body is therefore mystically inestimable.  

So much rich teachings, dear ones, emanating from the Feast of our Lord’s Holy Ascension.  Thank God that Christ Ascended from earth to Heaven.  All praise, glory, and honor to the One Who, next week at Pentecost, will then come to us as the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and Who fillest all things.  F/S/HS