• Gospel Reading
  • In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is in our midst! He is and shall be! With this evening’s Vespers and tomorrow morning’s Divine Liturgy, we commemorate one of the major feasts in the Church year—Christ’s Ascension to His Father. This happens forty days after the Resurrection, and from Christ’s own words we know that it is a precursor to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. “I send the Promise of My Father upon you (Luke 24:49)…you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you (Acts 1:8).” What I’d like us to consider this evening is a question that one of my daughters—Abigail—asked me at supper the other night. We were mentioning that the Feast of the Ascension was coming in a few days, and after we discussed the movement of Christ from the Cross to the Tomb through Pascha and to the Ascension, Abigail got this really questioning look on her face and asked “Why?” So of course I asked, “Why, what?” To which she responded, “Why did Jesus leave after He rose from the dead?”

    There are actually several levels of answers to this question, but I’d like us to consider two. 1-so that the Holy Spirit could come and fill the believers and give birth to the Church; 2-to complete the fullness of God becoming man.

    So we’ll take this second point first—God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, becomes fully and completely and totally human at the Incarnation. [We’ll talk in some detail about this on Sunday, when we’ll commemorate the Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council, and look at the Christological teaching that came out of that Council.] The Word of God takes humanity to himself in the Incarnation. And then He lives a life basically like any 1st C Jew in Palestine would live. The last three years of His life He preaches the Gospel of the Kingdom, He completes His earthly ministry, until the apex of His earthly life—the Cross. And then, as St. Paul says, the Resurrection—which serves as the “proof,” so to speak, that all Christ said was true. He was, and is, the Son of God and God. At this point, after the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, it seems that He could have simply gone into Jerusalem, gone into Pilate, gone into the Temple, and the whole world would have believed. But that isn’t how God works. We each have to make the decision, based on faith, to believe. When Christ appears to His Apostles He doesn’t force them to believe, He appears to people who already believe. If Christ chose to go into the city and force people to believe, then He would be violating one of the most precious gifts of God to man—our freedom. So after appearing to His Apostles for forty days, Christ completes/fulfills the Incarnation by Ascending to His Father in Heaven. Humanity was taken on by God not just for a few years, but for all of eternity. Humanity ascended into heaven and was joined forever with the Godhead. As we say in the prayers before Holy Communion—“O thou Who in Thy glorious Ascension didst deify the flesh that Thou hadst taken upon Thee, and didst honor it with a seat at the right hand of the Father…” The Ascension completes the work of Christ, and demonstrates again just how much He loves us. The Apostles watch as He physically Ascends—they can have no doubt that the Body of Christ goes to His Father, and is forever seated at the right hand of God, as St. Marks Gospel (16:19) says. This condescension of God—to join Himself forever with His Creation—the love is unimaginable. And if Christ ascends, then as He promised, all of those who believe in Him will one day be clothed in a new and incorruptible body and will join him for all of eternity in His Father’s Kingdom. So that is the first of our answers—Why the Ascension?—Christ ascends to complete His earthly work; to join forever humanity with divinity; and to demonstrate what our salvation also will be.

    Our other point, which Christ Himself makes very clear in the Gospels, is that He leaves in order to send the Holy Spirit. We’ll talk specifically about the coming of the Spirit in 10 days, at Pentecost. For now we just need to see that Christ leaves in order to send the Spirit. Now, we could ask a very confusing question—“does this mean that the Holy Spirit and Christ can’t be on the earth at the same time?” The obvious answer, since we’re talking about God, is no. There has to be another meaning to our Lord’s words. The Fathers teach us that everywhere one of the Trinity is present, the other two are also present. The sending of the Spirit is directly related to the point we made above. Christ ascends to complete His earthly mission. Now that Christ will no longer be physically present with the Apostles, they need a way to always be in the presence of God. Christ’s physical presence provided their strength; now the strength would have to come from the inside. And so 10 days after the Ascension, the Holy Spirit will be sent to live in the Apostles. To live in the believers. And offer them all the same experience, regardless of time or space—to be at every moment with Christ. The coming of the Spirit also inaugurates the age of the Church. The time of Temple had passed, the time of outward obedience and sacrifice. And the time for inner renewal and participation in the Ultimate Sacrifice of Christ had come. Christ ascended, the age of the Church began, and now mankind waits. We wait for the return of our Saviour, and for the inauguration of the final stage in mankind’s existence—the coming of the heavenly kingdom.

    As we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord, we remember the overwhelming love that our God has for mankind. A love that joined forever His divinity with our created humanity, and a love that even now works within us, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!