38 - Seventh Sunday of Pascha, May 31, 2009

Acts 20:16-18, 28-36

John 17:1-13

On the Feast of Theophany, which celebrates the baptism of Christ in the Jordan the Church sings out: “The Lord most powerful makes haste to bear the creation down into the stream, bringing it to a better and changeless path.”[1] By this path found in the depths of the Jordan, we are exalted to heaven,[2] so that when we descend into the waters of our Baptism, we ascend to God.[3]

From this teaching of the Church, you begin to see that through our baptism, we come out onto a path that leads to our ascending with Christ in His Ascension to become one with God. Ascension or unity with God is what the Christian Faith is all about, so it is very important that we understand what that means if we are to fulfill our high calling that is in Christ Jesus to be stewards of His mysteries.

We heard from St Paul how in holy baptism, we are buried with Christ. That means that we have died in Christ. But how so? Obviously, we are still alive after our baptism because we still breathe and walk around, just as we did before. How are we dead, or is this just a metaphor?

It is not a metaphor; it is a mystery, the mystery of Christ that was hidden from before the ages. We cannot see how we have died in Christ by looking at this mystery in the same way that we look at the things of the world. The mysteries of Christ are not of the world. They are of the Spirit and they cannot be seen or understood except according to the Spirit. According to the Scriptures, death does not begin when we finally breathe our last and become a corpse. Death is not an outward event. It is an inward event. Death for the Scriptures is separation from God, and this separation begins within our heart, when we choose to love the form of this world that is passing away, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life.

Therefore, when we are buried with Christ in our baptism, what is put to death is our separation from God brought about by our turning away from God in our heart. But if what is put to death is our separation from God, then obviously to die in Christ means that we are raised from up from death; we are no longer separated from God in our heart. We are united to Him, and in Christ, we are no longer dead but alive in God, for we are made one with God.

The death to which the Christian Faith calls the world is not what we understand as death, when we breathe our last and become a corpse. As I said, that is not the beginning of our death, but one of its last events, when the inward death that followed immediately on our separation from God ends in the separation of our soul from our body, and then the separation of our body from itself as it disintegrates into the dust. No, the death to which the Christian Faith calls the world is to die in union with the death of Christ, which destroys death and as the death of death heals our separation from God. This death in Christ is beyond our power. That is to say, to die a so-called “natural” death outside of Christ by our own power is relatively easy because we are already dead, separated from God because of our sins. But we cannot die in Christ by our own power because we cannot end our separation from God and breathe life into ourselves. It must be done for us, and it must be done for us by God Himself, because only God can do that.

And, when we are raised up out of the waters of our Baptism, we come up as new creatures, for united to Christ’s death and resurrection, we come up from the waters of our baptism as the creation came up from out of the waters of the abyss in the beginning, and as Adam was brought forth from the dust of the ground and given life, except that in our baptism, we are raised up to life not in the old Adam who is at enmity with God but in the New Adam, Christ our God, who was obedient to the Father to the point of death on the Cross, and who by His death has trampled down death and given life to those in the tombs. And so, when we are brought up from out of the waters, we are raised up out of this worldly life that is centered on death and that ends in death, and we are brought out into an altogether different life, the eternal life of the Spirit; and we are raised up into an altogether different reality, the Spiritual reality of Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension, which profane eyes cannot see. In a very profound way, you could say that in our baptism, we disappeared from out of the world. We left the world, we died to the world. Our real self that is in our secret heart was taken out of the world and united to Christ – it was taken out of death and raised up into the life of Christ, whom the world cannot see because the world does not know Him or believe that He truly comes from the Father. Our real self is hidden with Christ in God and so it is hidden from the eyes of the world. The life we now live in our secret heart is not the life of the world but the eternal life of Christ’s Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead and who raised us up out of the waters of our Baptism as children of God, born from above – if, in fact, we have taken up our cross and set out to walk that better and changeless path that ascends to God and have not taken the path that leads back down into the life of the world, like the Israelites wanting to go back to Egypt. In our secret heart, we walk no longer the dark paths of this world, reveling in deeds of darkness. We walk that better and changeless path that ascends to God in the Light of Christ’s Holy Resurrection and Ascension.

Let’s conclude our meditation this morning by talking a bit about Christ’s Holy Ascension. The Ascension of Christ completes and makes perfect the whole mystery of His Incarnation, of His descent into the womb of the Virgin, His ascent on the Cross, and His descent into hell. For, by His Ascension, Christ unites earth to heaven – or rather, He unites hell to heaven so that whether we go to Hell or to Heaven, Christ is there – so that in the Church, which in His body, we are in Heaven and the Kingdom of Heaven is within us. In the Church, our separation from God has been healed by Christ’s Pascha and His Holy Ascension, for in these works, Christ has united us to the Father through His Holy Spirit. This is the work that Christ has completed on the earth, the work that the Father gave Him to do. It is the work of divine love. So that when we are raised up out of the waters of our Baptism, we are raised up into this descending and ascending movement of Christ that is the movement of love, that leads us onto the better and changeless path that ascends to God. In the spiritual depths of our being hidden to the eyes of the world, we are raised up in the Light and Life of Christ into the communion of the Holy Spirit, which is a communion of love; and since love never fails, as St Paul writes, our ascent to God never ends, but ascends from glory to glory – or, I think we could say, it ascends in an ever-deepening intimacy of divine love.

In the mystery of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is poured out on all those who in the fear of God, with faith and love, have died in Christ. In the Holy Spirit of Christ, and in the joy of Christ’s Resurrection, we take up our Cross in order to learn how to love one another from our heart as Christ has loved us. We take up our cross by taking up the ascetic disciplines of the Church. This is how we walk that better and changeless path that ascends to God. This is how we follow Christ out of the darkness and into the Light of His Heavenly Kingdom that opened before us when we came out of the waters of our baptism.

In the joy of the Feast of Ascension, and in the joy of Pentecost, we are granted to see the joy of the eternal life that we have received in our baptism when we were united with Christ. If we would attend to what we see and hear in these glorious feasts of Pascha, we should find ourselves wanting to take up our cross to begin making our way on that better and changeless path that ascends to God, that we may learn to love God as He commands us, and in the joy and love that proceeds from a heart made alive in the love of God, to become witnesses through the joy and love that permeates our words and deeds to the ineffable grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Festal Menaion, p. 377

[2] FM 369

[3] FM 383