Sunday after Ascension
Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council
Acts 20:16-18, 28-36
Acts 1:1-12 (for the Feast)
Luke 24:36-53 (for the Feast)
Delivered at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, Willimantic, CT
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Christ is ascended! Beloved brothers and sisters in the Lord, today is the Sunday following the Feast of Ascension which the Church celebrated last Thursday, exactly 40 days after the bright and saving Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. For these 40 days, Our Lord has been with us showing many convincing proofs that he is alive and that he still bears his human flesh in its resurrected, glorified form. He has met with his disciples, they have handled his wounded hands and side, and finally, in an incontrovertible proof of his tangible body, he ate with them a honeycomb and some fish. And it is now with that glorified human flesh that he ascends to where he was before, but not as he was before: The eternally begotten Son of the Father, who is one essence with the Father, now is, of the Virgin Mary, one essence with humankind. He ascends in glory and triumph and the Angels were so amazed at the sight that they practically danced a jig in heaven:
…But the Bodiless [angels] said: Who is this comely man? But he is not only man, but God and man; that which is manifest is twofold. Wherefore, beside themselves, the Angels, flying about in radiant garments, cried unto the disciples: Ye men of Galilee, he that is gone from you, Jesus, man and God, shall come again as God-man to judge the living and the dead; and He granteth unto the faithful the forgiveness of sins and great mercy. (Litia verse, Vespers for Ascension)
Raised to the heavens in the body… We who dwell on earth can hardly imagine such a thing, even in this age of airplanes and space travel! When Yuri Gagarin, the first man to travel in space and orbit the earth, uttered his immortal word “Poyekhali! meaning “Let’s go,” the hearts and souls of the world went with him. The recent movie about his life, simply titled Gagarin: First in Space, makes it clear that this hero of humanity came from no eminent metropolis and did not graduate from an elite University. The son of a carpenter and bricklayer from a small village named Klishino (Клу́шино), Gagarin was a humble and unassuming pilot with an unswerving internal moral compass. And it was this strong moral compass which guided him in the deep recesses of space and led him home to earth in that historic parachute landing.
Similarly, our own American hero, Neil Armstrong, the first man to step foot on the moon, was not the son of some aristocratic European family or educated by the best universities. He was born in a small town in Ohio, fought in the Korean War, and went to school courtesy of the US Navy for whom he was a pilot. Two new movies about the mission that brought him to the moon, titled First Man and Apollo 11, chronicle the miraculous chain of events that led to that historic first step. As with Gagarin, when Armstrong took that first step, the eyes of the world were upon him and our hearts and souls were there as well. Lieutenant Armstrong sensed this when he famously proclaimed that his was, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
But above them both, our Lord Jesus Christ who became man for us and for our Salvation revealed in his heavenly ascent not just a change in position, but a change in dimension. Our deified human nature makes possible for us a path within, an ascent to heaven that starts by going deeper into the depths of the human heart. For all those who believe in him, the Gospel promises, will receive power from on high: power to overcome darkness, power to change a failing life, and power finally to ascend in glory with the Lord to our true home in heaven. St. Augustine writes:
Now indeed that body [of the Lord] is worthy of a heavenly dwelling place, not subject to death, not changeable through ages. For he had grown to that age from infancy, so he does not decline to old age from the age which was young adulthood. He remains [now] as he ascended. (ACCS, Commentary on Acts 1:6-11)
So then, He who rose from the dead and ascended into heaven is there precisely so that we may join him someday in our glorified bodies. His “small step” of becoming man is for all of us a giant leap of becoming reunited to God. And His beginning in a small town with a carpenter for an earthly father is a reminder that the path to greatness undoubtedly lies in humility.
May he who ascended in human flesh to heaven enable us to rise with him in purity of heart. Christ is ascended!