Ascension of our Lord – Kingdom of Heaven
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen. Dear beloved, a most blessed Great Feast Day of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ!
Today, we rejoice, on the Feast Day of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, which in the Church shows us the completion of the Holy Mystery of Christ’s presence with His Apostles.
In the Ascension, as we affirm during every Divine Liturgy in the Apostles’ Creed, we rejoice, as Christ our Lord showed us the union of man and God into Heaven, one of the two major hallmarks of Theosis (deification) that we seek in Orthodoxy, the other being the Transfiguration. Through His Ascension, Christ affirmed and put to rest, His two natures – Divine and human.
Our reading of St Luke 24:36-53 also reminded us, that Christ determined to assure us He became man, conquered death through His resurrection. And in Acts 1:1-12, we are reminded that Christ will come again, this time as Judge. Our eternal life, whether in His Kingdom or in our own created delusions and suffering, depends on our attempts towards Theosis.
When we think about Heaven, fictional and dramatic representations of Heaven often depict It as unreachable and up in the sky, as if God is far away from man. The reality is that the Kingdom of God is within us, as Christ said to us in St Luke 17:21.
With the Ascension, Christ showed us that man can ascend to Heaven, as His human nature ascended into Heaven. And Heaven is not faraway in an astronomical dimension, but Heaven is really right where we are. We just may, or may not realize it. Christ our Lord and Redeemer, through His historic and brief journey with us, became our ladder, our ascension to Heaven.
Our reading of Psalm 82:1-8 (LXX 81) in the Old Testament gave us a tone of what Theosis means. One of the greatest compilations is the Philokalia (Greek for “love of the beautiful”), Father among the saints St Maximus the Confessor said, “A sure warrant for looking forward with hope to the deification of human nature is provided by the incarnation of God, which makes man god to the same degree as God Himself became man… Let us become the image of the one whole God, bearing nothing earthly in ourselves, so that we may consort with God and become gods, receiving from God our existence as gods. For it is clear that He who became man without sin (Hebrews 4:15) will divinize human nature without changing it into Divine nature, and will raise it up for His own sake to the same degree as He lowered Himself for man’s sake. This is what the Holy Apostle Paul taught mystically when he said, ‘… that in the ages to come He might display the overflowing richness of His Grace (Ephesians 2:7)’.”
Theosis, or deification, is not mundane or simple, and for us, not something to intellectualize about. We simply pray for God’s forgiveness for our fallen state and our continuing stumbles and falls, that we may be gifted with sufficient strength to always carry on towards Him. Theosis is when we partake in the Holy Mysteries, as often as we can. To us, the Mystery of reconciliation and in the Divine Liturgy, what we pray and do are real and sustaining. Theosis is an actual journey, one that requires us to move forward towards God, on all fours if we must, with prayers and repentance in tears as we reflect upon our own journeys.
Christ is our Ladder to Divine Ascent, as He taught us, that through Him, we are cradled to God our Father (St John 14:6). Do not look skyward and lament that the Heavenly Kingdom is astronomically far away and impossible to touch. The Kindgom of Heaven, as Christ taught us (St Luke 17:21), is within us, is right with us, is around us. The Kingdom is right where we are, in our surroundings, in the people, in nature, in the elements. It may not be apparent to all, but the Kingdom permeates and is in everything around us, and within us.
To ascend to the Kingdom of Heaven, do not imagine that it is privy only to monastics, to holy men, or to a select few. God’s Merciful Love is for all. His salvation is open to all. His Light and Truth shine on everyone and everything. How do we then, attempt our ascent to Heaven?
In St Luke 18, we remember the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. The Pharisee placed self above God, and despised everyone but himself, pronouncing proudly that he did no wrong and gave tithes. The publican, on the other hand, placed God above all else, and asked for forgiveness and reconciliation, with merely “O God, be merciful to me a sinner”. St John Climacus, Father among the saints, in his work “Ladder of Divine Ascent” which described the journey to the Kingdom of God, said, “Let your prayer be completely simple, for both the publican and the prodigal son were reconciled to God by a single phrase.”
Beloved, despite whatever crosses we carry, whatever trials we face, whatever pains and suffering we bear, and despite whatever luxuries and wealth and even power may come our way, look past them, and remember our sole purpose is Theosis, reuniting with God. The path is not easy, and do not get dissuaded, or get seduced by the evil one with anything else but the journey towards God. And as St John Climacus taught us about prayer and repentance compared to the publican and the prodigal son, that we simply pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”.
Let us close by praying the thanksgiving prayer:
It is truly meet to call thee blest, the Theotokos, ever blessed and most pure, and the Mother of our God. More honorable than the Cherubim, and more glorious than the Seraphim, without corruption thou gavest birth to God the Word: True Theotokos, we magnify thee.
O virgin Theotokos, rejoice; O Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, for thou hast borne the Savior of our souls, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
St Luke 24:36-53