Sermon for Ascension (2018)

May 20, 2018

Sermon for Ascension (2018)

 

One of the hymns for Vespers during “Lord, I have cried…” on Sunday says that Christ “hath renewed the ascent into the heavens.” If we are told that the ascent into the heavens has been renewed, then it must be that man was supposed to ascend into the heavens in the first place. St. Symeon the New Theologian clarifies this for us:

“Just imagine how many people there would have been if all those born from the creation of the world had not died! And what kind of life they would have lived, being immortal and incorrupt, strangers to sin, sorrows, cares, and difficult necessities! And how, prospering in the keeping of the commandments and the good ordering of the dispositions of the heart, in time they would have ascended into the most perfect glory, and being transformed, would have drawn near to God; and the soul of each one would have become light-bearing by reason of the illuminations which would have been poured out upon it from the Divinity! And this sensuous and crudely material body would have become as it were immaterial and spiritual, above the senses; and the joy and rejoicing with which we then would have been filled, by communion one with the other, in truth would have been unutterable and beyond human thought!”

With a most penetrating and unique divine vision, St. Symeon unfolds to us what would have been if we had not fallen. And this vision of his also fully unravels what is taking place today in the human nature of Christ, and therefore, in our human nature.

The Apostles stand gazing into heaven upon the ascending Christ until He is no longer visible to the physical eyes; but the mind and heart of the Apostles is fully transfixed in an immaterial vision upon Him as He ascends beyond the earth, beyond the whole physical universe, and beyond all the ranks of heavenly angels, sitting down upon His divine throne with our human nature.

The highest achievement of science is achieved today by the Lord’s disciples. Scientists observe, experiment, reason and analyze the whole physical world through means of the bodily senses. But, what greater marvel in the physical realm could there be than the body of God? What other thing calls so much attention to itself in the physical universe than this body, and its ascension? For centuries men have been probing and analyzing every minute detail of creation; modern man can now boast that he knows incomprehensibly more than his predecessors, that he can peer into the outermost parts of the universe, into the farthest depths of the ocean; but to what avail? What is the accomplishment of modern science without faith in God? Nothing. Even worse: that which should rather be an entrance into, and a complement of, faith has become a locked and fully barred door between man and true knowledge of God.

Faith without scientific knowledge is still salvific. But scientific knowledge without faith is pagan unbelief. One thing is proud prying and examining, and quite another is pious wonder. Comparing the two, one of the verses for the Praises in Sunday Matins says: “[Mysteries are] sealed for those who would examine them; but…wonders [are] revealed to those who wor­ship the mystery with faith. Grant Thou joy and great mercy unto us who hymn it!” Mounting upon sheer reasoning power and force of will, the man who wants to pry into the mysteries of God through proud speculation, without humbling himself before God, is guilty of spiritual thievery, rape, pillaging, and intrusion. He tries to ascend to heaven without God. He thinks that he can understand everything without the illumination given by God. This is the disposition and spiritual blindness of our modern age, of the atheistic so-called scientists, philosophers and spiritual guides. These are they who are called by Christ “thieves and robbers” who “enter not by the door into the sheepfold” of the heavenly kingdom, “but climb up some other way.”

But the Prophets, Apostles, Holy Fathers, and all true Orthodox Christians are not proud examiners. When Christ ascended into heaven, leaving below the Apostles, they stood gazing up at Him, their minds rapt by wonder—all the power of their minds was consumed by silent wonder and joyfulness of soul, not by the cobwebs and ashes of concepts and opinions born of unbelief.

Proud prying and examining sound like this: “Why did God create things the way He did? Why did He not create them some other way? Why did He create us with free will if He knew we were going to fall, and many would separate themselves from Him for all eternity? Why did He allow the devil to become so wicked and to cause so much evil in the world?” And so on. The tone of those who speculate like this reveal a lack of faith; such people think that they could create a better world if only they had the power to do so. They proudly challenge the deep and inscrutable judgments and ways of God the All-Knowing. Therefore, these mysteries are sealed to those who would examine them with pride.

But what does it mean to “worship the mystery with faith”? What is pious wonder which culminates in hymns of praise? The one who wonders about the things and ways of God examines the same things, but with humility and prayer. Abba Isaac reveals to us the state of the pious wonderer:

“Stricken with astonishment, he proclaims: ‘O the depth of the riches of the wisdom, knowledge, insight, prudence and economy of the inscrutable God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out!’ For when He made ready that other wondrous age, so as to bring therein all rational creatures and to keep them in that infinite life, what indeed was the cause for Him to fashion this world first, to extend its borders, to enrich it with such a multiplicity and abundance of species and natures, and to place in it the causes, materials, and conflicts of the many passions? And how was it that in the beginning He set us in this world and instilled in us a love for longevity here, and then He suddenly translates us from hence by death and keeps [our bodies] for no small time in insensibility and motionlessness? How is it that He thus causes our form to perish, pours out our constitution and mingles it with the earth, permits our structure to dissolve, perish, and melt away, until the human frame completely ceases to be? And then, at a time which He wills and has decreed by His adorable wisdom, He will raise us up in another form, which He Himself knows, and will bring us into another state!”

The Lord does not demand of us that we stop thinking, observing, questioning and wondering about everything around us. But He does place a limit on us; or, rather, He teaches us that our reasoning powers are limited, and that we need to be aided and taught by faith in a higher Mind, by Himself. All wonder, all reasoning, all thinking and pondering can only bring us to the fringes of the physical universe; and even beyond, into the invisible universe of countless angels who dwell above the physical heavens. Our thoughts and concepts stretch out to these things, and they seek to touch something beyond them, they seek to lay hold of the throne of the Invisible God. But seated upon this throne and beholding our struggle, love and efforts, God condescended to us, becoming a Man upon the earth, and bringing the highest heavens to us lowly ones.

Our nature is strained. We have come through the blessed season of Lent. We have been crucified with Christ and we have been resurrected with Him. But still, something is missing. We long and pine after something greater. But what could be greater than having the resurrected Christ with us? To have Him within us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit: this is that greater thing. But Christ tells us that if He does not depart from us, the Holy Spirit will not come. All of this—the prophecies, the guidance over Israel, the Virgin birth, the Incarnation, the suffering of Christ, His crucifixion, death, burial and Resurrection, and finally His Ascension and sitting down at the right hand of the Father upon His throne which He never left—all of this has come to pass in order that Christ might send down to us the Holy Spirit.

St. Symeon says that the Holy Spirit is the soul of our soul. The Holy Fathers teach us that man was created in communion with God the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Man’s whole nature was created in oneness with the grace of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit—while remaining transcendent and completely other than us—is from the beginning a natural part of man; in fact, He is the most essential organ and power of man. From the beginning He was always a part, so to say, of our nature, while all the time remaining completely other than us.

The departure of the Holy Spirit from fallen man was the cause of our spiritual and bodily death. But today’s departure of Christ from us into heaven is the restoration and beginning-again of this very life in the Holy Spirit, and our re-unification with Him. Without the Holy Spirit, we cannot accomplish any good deed, we cannot think any good thought, we cannot incline our will to virtue, nor can we unite ourselves to Christ and be filled with Him—not without the living and most intimate action of the Holy Spirit within our very hearts, minds, souls and bodies.

If we have found even more trials during the forty days of Pascha-tide, and have come to the knowledge of our weakness even more so than when we were struggling during Lent, then it is only because God wants to make us more aware that “without Him we can do nothing”. If He leaves us feeling powerless and our minds spiritually dull and uncomprehending, then it is only because He wants us to feel even more His grace and light when He finally pours out the Holy Spirit upon us.

We are now told by Christ to “wait until we are endued with Power from on high”. When this Power comes, when the Holy Spirit finally penetrates us with all of His power and life, then we will be filled with perfect knowledge and enabled to live truly for God in a way which pleases Him. Human nature leaps up; our minds and hearts yearn to follow Christ beyond the heavens. To a certain extent He allows us entry, but only in contemplation, only in anticipation; and only at rare times does He allow us to partake of faint foretastes of His life above the heavens. But we are told to wait. Christ has reassured us that our human nature will rise again; for He shows us Himself, the first-fruits of the resurrection. He did not arise for His own sake, but for us. He assures us that we too will ascend into the heavenly kingdom, but not yet—not before our struggle here, not before our death, and not until He comes again, resurrects all the dead, judges the living and the dead, and separates the sheep from the goats.

For now, He commands us to wait—in silent prayer, in stillness, in peace, in hopeful expectation, for that which many prophets have spoken about but have not seen accomplished in its fulness: the Holy Spirit’s outpouring upon us and His dwelling within us, the Church.

All of our battle with the passions, all of our struggle to forsake evil and do good, all of our prayers, hopes, strivings, repentance and pain, all this is our small offering to God, and in exchange He gives us His Very Self. We offer dust and He grants us uncreated life. We offer Him a few words and pitiful movements towards doing good and He gives us His very own Wisdom and Power. But all human effort, all striving of body, soul and mind finally culminates in a humble stillness and a strong awareness of our deep dependence on, and need for, God. We become like living dead men who are conscious of their powerlessness and ignorance. We become “conscious dust” which awaits the inbreathing of the Holy Spirit. And we offer ourselves, so to say, as living corpses to God, humbled and patient, silently waiting and hoping for Him, knowing that we are nothing without Him.

Then, when He wishes and chooses to fill us with His grace, we will sense God’s presence and His most personal loving-care and power—not somewhere over there, not next to us, not above us, but within the depths of our hearts, transforming us from the inside out, flowing forth from us as a mighty river of life, knitting and uniting all of us together into one man, the Body of Christ, by His overflowing grace, the ever-existing divine life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.




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