36 Seventh Sunday of Pascha - May 20, 2007

Acts 20:16-18, 28-36

John 17:1-13


This morning we are in the Afterfeast of Ascension as we look ahead to next Sunday, the Feast of Pentecost, which will conclude the eight weeks of Pascha season. The meaning of Ascension is discerned by reflecting on it in connection with Christ’s resurrection and the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Feast of Pentecost.

But how are we to understand his Ascension? Was it a bodily ascent to some physical place somewhere up in the heavens? This is an important question for many reasons. At stake is a true understanding of the Christian Faith and a right practice of it. Many there are who have thought to explain its mysteries according to the ways of science or historical methods, or according to the dialectic of human ideas; but these ways have only led them to simplistic explanations that are flat and boring and unbelievable. And so, many have left the Christian Faith for other spiritualities they think are more credible or more exciting or more exotic. This is exactly what St Paul is warning the elders of the Church, the bishops, against in what we read from the Acts this morning. St Paul’s words are repeated by St Peter, who warns in his second epistle: There will be false teachers among you who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, and many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed.[1] Let’s heed the words of Sts Peter and Paul, and seek to shape our understanding of Christ’s bodily Ascension not from the ways of human understanding but from the teaching of the Church – i.e. from Scripture and the holy fathers.

St Paul writes: “Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer.”[2] He means: we have known Christ when he became flesh and dwelt among us; but he is no longer with us as he was in the days of his flesh. For, he died and was buried; but now he is risen. His body, even though it was the same body that was crucified, dead and buried, is different now. It is a risen body; it is the same substance as our body, but in Christ, it has passed out of this world and into the resurrection. In his risen body, Christ no longer exists in the dimensions of space-time; he exists in the dimensions of the Holy Spirit. Christ’s risen body was flesh. The risen Lord wanted his disciples to see that he was not a ghost; he had them feel him, poke him, he had them giving him food to eat; but, his body no longer exists in a fleshly way; it exists in a spiritual way; for, as St Paul says to the Romans, it was the Holy Spirit who raised him from the dead.[3] And St Peter writes: “For Christ was put to death in the flesh, but he was made alive in the Spirit.”[4] Raised up by the Holy Spirit, Christ’s body no longer exists in space-time as do we in our bodies; it exists in the Eighth Day of the new creation, the Day that embraces in itself all the days of space-time from the beginning of the universe to its end.

St Paul is referring to this early Christian teaching when he goes on to say in the same passage: “So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old [elemental principles of being – arcaia] have passed away, behold new [principles of being] have come into being.”

If we were to conceive of Christ’s Ascension as a physical ascent into a physical heaven – as though he is leaving this place to go to that place, as though he is present there while he is now absent here – we would not be thinking in terms of the Spirit but in terms of the flesh, which is how the world of space-time thinks. Granted, the terms of the flesh are the only way we know to think. But that’s why we cannot draw conclusions about Christ from the ways of the flesh: the ways of science or historical methods – not even from the ways of philosophy, because even in its highest form, it is still but the wisdom of the human mind, not the Wisdom of God. If we are to learn Christ in the mystery of his resurrection and in the way that he exists in his flesh now, not in a fleshly way but in a spiritual way as the Church proclaims him, we must lay down our own ideas, our own wisdom, just as we lay down our worldly clothes when we approach the baptismal font; and we must let our minds be washed, baptized in the Spiritual vision of the Church. This entails an ascetic discipline in which we learn a new way of thinking. This, by the way, is central to the practice of repentance.

So when the liturgical texts talk of the angels looking on in amazement as they behold the Christ taken up into the heavens with his body, how are we to understand this in a way that is according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh? St Paul teaches that the Church is “the body of Christ, the fullness of him who is all in all.”[5] This in itself should be enough to shatter any way of thinking that is according to the flesh. For, if in his Ascension, Christ in his body was “taken up and a cloud received him out of their sight”[6] then the Church was taken up and received out of their sight. But, if the Church is his body, then his body is on earth; for, the Church is on earth, and we can see the Church here on earth. We can therefore see his body. How, then, was it taken out of their sight? Moreover, if, as St Luke says in his Gospel, Christ “was parted from them and carried up into heaven,”[7] as though he were now absent, then why do the faithful say when they greet one another: “Christ is in our midst?” And, why would Christ say to his disciples before he ascended from them and was “parted from them,” “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world”[8] if, in fact, he were not going to be with them in his Ascension?

But there are other texts, as well, in the large library of the Church, that would shatter any way of thinking that is according to the flesh. The Psalmist writes: “If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!”[9] The priest finishes the Proskomedia with this prayer: “In the tomb with the body, in hell with the soul, in paradise with the thief, on the throne with the Father and the Holy Spirit wast thou, O boundless Christ, filling all things.” How can Christ be taken away and become absent in any place if he is boundless, if he is everywhere? Let us, therefore, now understand clearly that the Savior’s bodily Ascension does not happen in a way that is according to the flesh but in a way that is according to the Spirit. It is a bodily ascent – the liturgical texts tell us that it is; but it is a bodily ascent that belongs to a spiritual reality altogether different from what we are able to conceive with our fleshly mind. It is a reality that happens not on this side of the grave but on the other side, in the resurrection.

Christ makes very clear to his disciples that his going away and the coming of his Holy Spirit are together one reality. “It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper [the Holy Spirit] will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send him to you.”[10] My effort to absorb the doctrine of the Church creates in my mind a vision of the risen Lord ascending into heaven not in terms of going from one place to another place as though he is now there and not here, not in terms of rising bodily from the earth and going away up into the sky, but rather in terms of his body becoming more and more subtle, more and more “spiritual,” until he becomes invisible altogether as he “disappears” bodily into the Spirit; and as he goes or “ascends” into the Spirit, the Spirit comes “out” or “down” at the Feast of Pentecost on those who have received him and becomes visible as flames of fire; but beyond that, he becomes visible in an invisible – i.e. a spiritual – way to the world in the spiritual manner of living that all can see in the lives of the martyrs and the saints;  and he becomes visible in an invisible – i.e. a spiritual – way to those who receive him in the inner experience that “descends” on them as they practice the ascetic doctrine of the apostles in the sacramental life of the Church: an inner experience of wholeness, of quietude and peace, of love, of light and joy.

This spiritual understanding of Christ’s Ascension is suggested to me from what I have read in St Maximus the Confessor. For him, it is the ascetic life of contemplation that “represents a spiritual ascent that accompanies Christ as he returns to the Father. Through this contemplation Christ becomes more subtle. The descending movement of Christ in the Incarnation helps man to a corresponding movement of ascent [through spiritual contemplation]. St Maximus says that the Lord does not ascend to the Father for someone who looks for the logos [principle] of God according to the flesh.” He ascends to the Father for those who seek the logos of God through contemplation – i.e. in a spiritual way of thinking.[11]

A spiritual way of thinking is not possible apart from a spiritual way of living. This key element of the Lord’s doctrine that St Paul exhorts the elders of the Church – the bishops and the clergy, the fathers of the Ecumenical Councils and all the faithful – to guard is of one piece with the doctrine of Christ’s resurrection from the dead and his ascension into heaven. St Paul writes: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”[12] “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.”[13] “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ.”[14]But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”[15] And St Peter, standing as our second witness, as it were, to this key element of the original apostolic doctrine, writes that we become partakers or communicants of the divine nature as we flee from the corruption that is inherent to the lustful (carnal) desires of the world.[16] 

We put on the Lord Jesus Christ and become communicants of the divine nature – and so participants in Christ’s resurrection and ascension – in our baptism. In that mystery, we died in a spiritual manner to the flesh and we were made to live in the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead and who descended on the apostles at Pentecost. In the apostolic teaching of the Church, baptism is not a ritual that is over and done with in a few moments; baptism begins with the ritual washing of the body in the baptismal font. From there, it must be extended inward by the cooperation of our free will, into our heart, to begin forming in our mind a new orientation and inner disposition that manifests itself in a way of thinking and a way of living that is not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. We live in a spiritual way as we orient our mind and heart to the practice of Christ’s commandments. By those commandments, we begin walking the path of the uncreated light and divine life of the Spirit that ascends to God the Father. In the practice of Christ’s commandments, we are taking up our Cross, we are taking up our bed, and we are beginning in our life here and now to make our ascent to heaven, our going into the Spirit, with Christ. We are folding that moment of our baptism when we were raised up from out of the waters and clothed in the robe of light into our everyday life and making our everyday life into a daily ascent into the heavens with Christ, a daily going into the Spirit, a daily turning inward into the unseen realm of our heart, the bridal chamber, the tomb, the baptismal font, a daily giving of ourselves to the unseen realities of the Spirit. As we practice this way we become in our inner self more and more subtle, more and more invisible; and our flesh, our body, exists  more and more no longer in a fleshly way but in a spiritual way. The practice of Christ’s commandments is how we enter into a “spiritual manner of living both thinking and doing such things as are well pleasing to him.”

Here in the world we are seen in the body, but in our heart we are unseen and in our heart we are making a spiritual ascent with Christ in his Holy Spirit to the Father in the “heavens” – that is to say, in the realm of the Spirit. In this unseen realm of the Holy Spirit, the faithful stand in the spiritual place of the Savior’s High Priestly Prayer that we heard in this morning’s Gospel lesson. The faithful are those who belong to the Father and whom he has given to his Son, for whom his Son is praying to the Father in his Holy Spirit in groanings too deep for words: “Father, I pray for them, I do not pray for the world, but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All that is mine is yours, and all that is yours is mine, and I am glorified in them. Now, I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to you. Holy Father, keep through Your Name those whom you have given me, that they may be one as we are.”

We are in the world in a fleshly way. But in Christ, we have died to the flesh and we have been raised up in his Holy Spirit and set on the path of life that ascends with Christ to the Father in the heavens. This is why Christ is present to those who are in him. When, through the practice of Christ’s commandments, we turn from the flesh to the unseen realm of the Spirit in our heart, then even our flesh becomes the veil that manifests the presence of the unseen Christ who is in our midst in his Holy Spirit. Our flesh, our body, becomes the temple of God and it begins to exist in a spiritual way; and in the worship space of our heart, we are communing with Christ our God in the Spirit of the Father. This is why, in the Church, where two or three are gathered in the Name of Christ, i.e. in the Spirit of Christ, Christ is not there but here; he is in our midst.

Lord Jesus Christ, as the Father sent you into the world, so you have sent your faithful ones into the world. Lord, may we be counted among your faithful. Teach us your ways, make us to understand your commandments; grant that we may know you, the only true God, and grant that we may enjoy eternal life in the love of God the Father, the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and in the communion of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

[1] II Pt 2:1-2

[2] I Cr 5:16

[3] Rm 8:11

[4] I Pt 3:18

[5] Eph 1:23

[6] Acs 1:9

[7] Lk 24.51

[8] Mt 28:20

[9] Ps 139:8

[10] Jn 16:7

[11] Lars Thunberg, Man and Cosmos, p. 83-84.

[12] Gal 5:24

[13] I Cor 12:13

[14] Col 2:11

[15] Rm 13:14

[16]ina dia toutwn genhsqe qeiaV koinwnoi fusewV, apofugonteV thV en twi kosmwi en epiqumiai fqoraV;” (II Pt 1:4).