Thursday, May 25, 2006

Arise, O God, Above the Heavens!

As the priest returns to the sanctuary after distributing Holy Communion, he incenses the Holy Mysteries and says, quoting the psalms: “Arise, O God, above the heavens, and may your glory shine on earth!” I think this is a fitting passage on which to reflect for this feast of the Lord’s Ascension into Heaven.

First, the opening phrase: Arise, O God, above the heavens. This is actually what we are celebrating today. Forty days after Jesus rose from the dead, He rose above the heavens, that is, He ascended to his place at the right hand of the Father. This is the crowning of his passion and resurrection, the fulfillment of his glorification—his reward, so to speak, for accomplishing the Father’s will as a man on earth. His mission was not complete until He ascended to the Father, presenting the wounds of his sacrifice, which He will lovingly bear for all eternity as a testimony of his love. We know that the ascension was an essential aspect of his saving work, because Jesus could not renew his relationship with his disciples until it was accomplished. For He said to Mary Magdalene in the garden: “Do not touch Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father.” Yet this mystical ascension was accomplished shortly thereafter, for that same evening He said to his disciples: “Touch Me and see that a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” This first ascension is what we might term his theological ascension, which was a mystery—like his resurrection that no one saw happening—invisible to the eye but part of his saving work.

His visible ascension, 40 days later, marked the termination of his post-resurrection appearances, and was a powerful sign to the apostles. But, as we selfish humans tend to want to know—what does this have to do with us; what’s in it for us that Jesus rode a cloud back to Heaven? Several things, actually. First, this is a confirmation of everything that happened before. The disciples never witnessed the Incarnation or the Virgin Birth; they only met Jesus as a grown man. To see Him going back to Heaven in such a dramatic and miraculous way, confirms that He did indeed come from Heaven. One of the main points that Jesus tried to impress on his disciples (and all who would believe), according to John’s Gospel, is that the Father sent Him—He came from the Father, and was returning to Him. There’s a kind of symbolism to Christ’s going “up”: it shows that He is divine; He dwells where God dwells; He is Lord, not only of earth, but of heaven as well.

Another confirmation came from the angels who appeared at this glorious event and shook the disciples out of their open-mouthed ecstasy. “This One whom you saw ascend to Heaven,” they said, “will return the same way,” that is, visibly, gloriously. The Second Coming is not going to be some sort of spiritualized faith-experience, as some would like to reinterpret it. Jesus is going to come in glory and, as the Book of Revelation says, every eye will see Him.

There is more in it for us still. In the Old Testament, the high priest would enter the holy of holies with the blood of sacrificed animals as an offering for the atonement of the sins of the people. But now, Jesus, the High Priest of the New Covenant, as we read in Hebrews, enters the holy of holies in Heaven—the real one, not an earthly copy—offering his own shed blood for the forgiveness of our sins. He ever lives to intercede for us before the face of the Father, presenting to Him, until the consummation of the world and the end of time, his own perfect atoning sacrifice, which the Father receives and accepts as the new and everlasting covenant between God and man—the sacrificed body and blood of the Son of God made flesh.

This is one reason we pray verses concerning the ascension right after Holy Communion: at every Divine Liturgy we access, so to speak, or enter into the mystery of that Sacrifice of Christ which stands perpetually before the face of the Father. He died and rose but once, yet the fruits of this sacrifice are meant to be granted to the faithful of all nations and all times, until Jesus returns on the clouds, like the angels said. Meanwhile, we partake of this sacrifice as nourishment for the journey unto everlasting life, for, as the angel told Elijah: eat and drink, or else the journey will be too much for you—we will not have the strength to make the long pilgrimage through this earthly life unto heaven, if the Lord Himself is not our sustenance and nourishment. And He generously provides for us from his own inexhaustible Altar of Sacrifice, that He may abide in us and we in Him.

We have already begun to treat the second part of our opening psalm verse: “and let your glory shine on earth.” The presence of Christ in the sacramental Mysteries extends his heavenly glory to the earth, though in this present time before his second and glorious coming, his radiance is perceived by faith and not by sight. But how is it that Jesus, having ascended to the Father, descends again, as it were, to earth? He already told us this: When I go, I will send the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, to you. And just before He ascended, He told the disciples to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is by the Holy Spirit that Christ is present to us on earth before his second coming. It is by the Spirit that the presence of Christ, who rose above the heavens, can still shine on earth. We don’t know when Jesus will return, though the Scriptures tell us always to be awake and vigilant—precisely because we don’t know the day or the hour. It has pleased the Father not to reveal it to us, so it is vain, and contrary to the word of God, for people to try to predict the date, as so many throughout the ages have falsely done. Jesus made it very clear in the Acts of the Apostles: “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority.”

What is for us to know is that, in the words of Jesus, the Spirit is “the Promise of the Father.” All that the Father has willed for our salvation in Christ will be communicated to us by the Holy Spirit. Jesus said that the Spirit would glorify Him by declaring to us what is of Christ and of the Father. Thus the Spirit has inspired the Holy Scriptures in which we read the story of our salvation, and the Holy Tradition of the Church in which we live and experience the presence of Christ in all his mysteries.

So, as we await the imminent coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and the eventual return of Christ at the end of the ages, and as we celebrate today the glorification of the Lord, let us exclaim in our worship: Arise, O God, above the heavens, and let your glory shine on earth!