|37 - Afterfeast of Ascension, May 20, 2018|
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Acts 20:16-18, 28-36
It is surely not by chance that we commemorate the holy fathers of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea in 325 A.D. this morning. Our theme on this Sunday between the LORD’s Ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples at Pentecost is the “right” doctrine, the “right” word, the “right” faith or “Orthodoxy”, the preaching and the faith of the holy apostles.
What’s at stake is given this morning in St Paul’s exhortation to the elders of Ephesus and in the LORD’s prayer to the Father. It is shown to us visibly in the LORD’s Ascension in Glory in the flesh. It is this: that we might become one with the Father and receive eternal life and ourselves be glorified in the joy of Christ from knowing Him, in the intimacy of loving communion, as the Son of the Father.
To know Christ means to become one with Him, but how can we come to know Him if the word teaching us is not His word that He received from the Father and gave to His disciples and which they have given to us? (Jn 14:10, Acts 20:28ff.)
The word of the LORD is one with the work that the Father does in Him and who dwells in Him (Jn 14:10-12). To hear the word of the Church’s doctrine, then, because that word is the LORD’s word, is to do it; but, to do it is to become one with Christ. And, what is the work of that word? It is the work He finishes on His Cross, the work of creating the world and establishing it in Himself by His death so that it shall never be moved from His Resurrection and Glorification, or His Ascension.
This WORD of the Church’s doctrine, then, turns us toward Christ’s Cross and His Tomb, His death and burial, and so away from the biological life we live in this world that is passing away. Ironically, to the world this WORD of the Church carries the odor of death, ironic because the world itself stinks in the stench of death; but, to those who are being saved, it radiates the sweet fragrance of life (2 Cor 2:15-16).
The WORD of the Church’s doctrine takes us directly to the grave where everything in this life ends, to the dust we will return to, into which the world with all its scientific knowledge cannot see. It does this by turning us inward to our heart that the holy fathers call a tomb because we are spiritually dead in our sins and trespasses (Eph 2:1). But, in the death of Christ, the tomb of our heart is emptied of death; it becomes a bridal chamber where we become one with Christ, the Heavenly Bridegroom who comes at Midnight.
I would ask you to contemplate that the grave, our death, is where this “right” WORD of the Church begins to live in us. The “right” WORD of the Church takes us to our grave and into the Tomb of Christ and there, lost from the sight of the world’s knowledge, it passes over to the Garden on the other side into the Garden of Christ’s Resurrection. From there, it turns our gaze upward into heaven where the LORD in His Ascension has disappeared, for now, even from the eyes of faith (Acs 1:9).
On the mount of the LORD’s Ascension, the disciples are standing at once on this side and on the other side of the grave, because on the mountain, they are in the presence of the risen and so they are standing in the mystery of His Resurrection on the other side. That the LORD passes out of the disciples’ sight in His Ascension I think may speak to the glory and the joy that is our natural destiny, our “inheritance”, which the LORD has obtained for us: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love Him” (I Cor 2:9).
What I mean to say is that the Resurrection of Christ, which is the substance of the WORD of the Church, is not on this side of the grave where it can be verified or disproved by the instruments of human reasoning and scientific observation. It is in the grave, and beyond, on the other side of the grave. The Life in which the Church lives, the Life of the Holy Spirit, begins where the reach of the instruments of human wisdom end: in the grave, in death.
The Holy Spirit descends on the disciples at Pentecost, therefore, from the other side of the grave, because He comes from the WORD of God who now sits at the Father’s Right Hand at the “noetic altar above the heavens”. Those gathered in Jerusalem are gathered in an upper room on this side of the grave. And into that place on this side of the grave, the Holy Spirit comes to them from the WORD of God who is on the other side. Or rather, the Holy Spirit comes to the disciples from the LORD’s throne above the heavens; He comes to them from the place of their “inheritance”, from the destiny that man was made for. That destiny is higher than we can see, because it is on the other side of the grave, from the noetic altar above the Heavens, even from the WORD of God who is seated at the Right Hand of the Father in the Glory He had with the Father before the world was.
This Holy Spirit who descends on the apostles is the very same Spirit in whom the WORD of God was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and became man; the same Spirit who anointed Him as King of all creation at the Jordan, by whose power He cast out devils by His little finger, the same Spirit by whom He was raised in the flesh from the dead and in whom He ascended, in the flesh, into heaven. This is the Spirit that descended on the disciples and raised them up into the Body of Christ so that they became members of Christ’s Body; they became the Church. This Church of the apostles, this Church that teaches and preaches the “right” WORD that comes from the Father, this Church that is the very Body of Christ, risen and glorified, exists in the world on this side of the grave, and at the same time in heaven on the other side.
That means that in the Church, and so, in our worldly, fleshly baptized and chrismated body that is on this side of the grave, the Glory of Christ that is on the other side is here, present in our midst on this side. In the WORD of God, the “right” WORD, the “Orthodox” WORD, the faithful live in the world on this side, but the life that lives in them is not the biological life of this world on this side of the grave and that ends in the grave; it is the eternal life of Christ’s Holy Spirit that is on the other side of the grave, the Life of the Holy Spirit in whom the LORD Jesus Christ destroyed death by His death. And this Life of the Holy Spirit begins to live in us in our baptism when we unite ourselves to Christ in the likeness, the intimacy, of His death. From this, we can say that the eternal life of Christ begins to live in us in the grave.
St John tells us that Christ was buried in a new tomb where no one had ever been laid (Jn 19:41). This Tomb was in a Garden, near the place where Jesus was crucified. I believe St John means to say that the Tomb of Christ was a completely new kind of Tomb, because His death was a completely new kind of death. His death was the one and only life-creating death; His Tomb was the one and only Gate that alone opens onto Eden.
It is this new death, this death of Christ in which He creates us anew in eternal life, that becomes our death when in faith and in love we unite ourselves to Christ in the Font of Holy Baptism, the Tomb of Christ that has become the Font of our Resurrection. And, we live in the eternal life of this life-creating death of Christ as we deny ourselves, as we lose our life for the sake of Christ and His Gospel, His Resurrection; i.e., as we turn inward and make our way to our heart where we are dead in our sins and trespasses, and voluntarily in faith and love for Christ take up our cross to follow Him and to put to death, for the love of Christ, what is earthly in us: our egotism.
It is only in this death that is of Christ, this voluntary self-denial and losing of our life for the sake of Christ or for the love of Christ, that the tomb of our heart opens to receive Christ and to become the Tomb of Christ, and we are united to this new kind of death and to this new kind of Tomb where eternal life begins – here, in the depths of the heart where the eyes of the world cannot see – here, in the Light of Christ that the darkness cannot extinguish, here in the Joy of Christ that the world cannot take away; for by His death and Resurrection He has overcome the world, the world that is man’s creation; and, by His Ascension in the flesh, He has established the world, the world that is His creation, on His noetic altar above the heavens so that the world will never be moved.
What this means, dear faithful, is that the Resurrection of Christ begins to shine in us in our self-denial, in our obedience to Christ’s commandments, in our putting to death what is earthly in us and in losing our life for the sake of Christ. This mystery of the Life of Christ’s Holy Spirit raising us to life precisely in our death is manifested in every aspect of our worldly life. It is manifested in our emotional suffering when we are afflicted involuntarily by the tribulations of the world, in the suffering of our body when it is sick or crippled or is actually dying; it is manifested in the voluntary suffering of our spirit when we choose to put to death what is earthly in us by not giving ourselves to impure thoughts, words and deeds and by seeking humility in all our thoughts and reasonings.
That the Light of Christ shines in our darkness when our heart is turned to Christ in faith and love is the testimony, the word, the teaching of the “saints”; but it is also the testimony of the “ordinary” faithful who experience it in the midst of their suffering and grief. The Light of the risen Christ shining on them in His Holy Spirit from His “noetic Throne above the Heavens”, makes itself “seen, heard and felt” (cf. I Jn 1:1) in the love that moves in their heart, a love clearly not of this world but of God because they can feel in the depths a profound healing of their soul taking place even as their heart is breaking, even as they or a loved one is dying. This is the power of the WORD of the Church, the power to heal and to raise to life and to create anew precisely in the very depths at the heart of our brokenness and our mortality, the power that gives them to cry out in faith and love: Glory to Jesus Christ! Amen!