Forty days after His Resurrection from the Dead, the Orthodox Church today (as well as the Western confessions) celebrate our Lord's Ascension into Heaven and His sitting at the Right Hand of God the Father. I was privileged for the first time to be able to celebrate the entire cycle of the feast (Vespers last night, Orthros and Liturgy this morning) and some insights came to me as to why this feast is so important and significant. Thanks to Fr. Peter Pappas at St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church for giving me some food for thought. And especially a great many thanks for allowing me to chant Orthros with you in both Greek and English.
Though this is one of the 12 great feasts, Ascension is often forgotten because it always falls on a Thursday and not everyone can get off work to go to Liturgy. At the same time, I think a lot of Christians, particularly Orthodox Christians, get discouraged when we come to Ascension because no longer do we chant "Christ is Risen" which we have done several million times since April 4 and the services return, more or less, to their "normal" mode. At the same time, though this feast is often forgotten, by both Eastern and Western Christians, I think that is a blessing in disguise. If it were more mainstream, how long would it be before the secularists who have so convoluted Pascha and Nativity with the Eastern Bunny and Santa Claus come up with some sort of secular alternative to this or even to our next feast, Pentecost? So, maybe we should rejoice in this little secret.
It's always disheartening to see Orthodox Christians not take the feasts of the Church seriously. I'm not speaking of those Orthodox Christians, of course who cannot make it because of their work and/or family schedules, but those who don't go simply because they have no desire to. Yet, at the same time, we should rejoice that even though the seats are left empty by our fellow man, the saints in Heaven and the Angels and Archangels together celebrate with us.
But, at the same time, I believe that most people don't really understand what Ascension is all about. They, as a whole, know the Gospels which record this event where Christ ascended into heaven giving his final commandment to the Apostles to love and forgive one another and that will be bound and loosed on earth will also be bound and loosed in heaven. OK, so what's the point then of his Ascending to heaven?
Our Lord spent 40 days here on earth following His Resurrection from the dead. He appeared to many, not as a spirit but as the God-Man, the Theanthropos. Every time he appears, He still appears with the wounds suffered from His Crucifixion. He doesn't appear as if He had his wounds treated. Why is this important?
Our Lord ascended into heaven while he still wore human flesh, wounds, sores and all. The Ascension is the deification of the flesh. We must remember that the bedrock of our theology is that God became man so that everything we have become through sin would be healed. Christ took our flesh up to heaven and that flesh sits at the right hand of the Father. Christ came not to destroy but to save!
We are often taught to fight against the body. This is erroneous. We are taught to war against the flesh. It is the flesh that is our enemy, but it is at the same time it is the source of our salvation. Bishop BASIL once said that the fallen Angels would never be saved because they have no flesh. Without flesh, they have not the means of repentance. Now that Christ has come, has been crucified, has been raised from the dead and has now ascended into the heavens, our repentance becomes strengthened not in spite of the flesh, but because of it! Our Lord did not come and do all these things simply to say "You are forgiven. Go and live life as you want because I will always forgive you." As he ascended and deified the flesh, Christ did command us to love and forgive one another. But he commanded us to do that because we now can do that since our flesh is no longer the burden it used to be. We have been changed! Ascension has done that.
There will be a general Resurrection at the Last Judgment. All men, Christian and not, will be resurrected as Christ promised. But the Ascension is only for the saved. St. Gregory Palamas says that "the Resurrection is connected with all men, but the Ascension only with the saints." Going further, Metropolitan HIEROTHEOS says this:
This is said from the from the point of view that by His Resurrection Christ conquered death and gave the gift of Resurrection to all. All will be resurrected on the day of Christ’s Second Coming, both righteous and sinners, but not all will be taken up. Only the righteous, the deified will be found worthy of this great experience. The Apostle Paul confesses: “And those who have died in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord” (I Thess. 4:16-17).
My thanks to Chris Orr at Orrologion for providing these quotes.
Christ's Pascha is for all men since all will be resurrected to be judged. Christ's Ascension is only for the saved who will become partakers of the essence of God through His energies (2 Peter 1:4). This is the bonafide Christian holiday! Though non-Christians and nominal Christians celebrate Nativity and Pascha, Ascension is not for them! It is for us!
So, let us go forth this day, rejoicing that the flesh is deified and that this holiday confirms our salvation through Christ our Lord and God and Saviour. Amen.