Today we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension, when Christ ascended to glory at the right hand of the Father. A comment in the Orthodox Study Bible on our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles says, “Christ’s Ascension is his enthronement in the fullness of divine authority and glory. Icons of the Ascension represent Christ in such a way that one cannot tell whether he is going to heaven or coming again to earth. This captures the profound truth that we are already living under his reign while awaiting his return. Thus, the icon shows Christ being taken up, coming again in like manner, and yet continually present. Believers are not to stand idly gazing up into heaven, but rather are called to virtuous faith and action in this world until Christ’s return.” The phrase “idly gazing up into heaven” brings to mind the recent fiasco of May 21st as judgement day, with billboards proclaiming this all over the country. Our lesson from Acts goes on to say, “The exact time is not yours to know. The Father has reserved that to himself.” We are not to concern ourselves with the end of the world, as the icons of this feast show, we are already living in the dynamic tension that is the last age of the world, however long a time that is.
Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to proclaim this truth and to live lives of faith, hope, joy, virtue, humility and repentance. St. Paul writes in his letter to the Church at Ephesus, ‘May…God…grant you a spirit of wisdom and insight to know him clearly. May he enlighten your innermost vision that you may know the great hope to which he has called you, the wealth of his glorious heritage to be distributed among the members of the church, and the immeasurable scope of his power in us who believe…He has put all things under Christ’s feet and has made him thus exalted, head of the church, which is his body: the fullness of him who fills the universe in all its parts.” This age of the world, represented by the icon of the Ascension, the age between the Ascension and the Second Coming – is the Age of the Church – the Church as the most glorious thing in all creation, becoming ever more full with the glory and truth of Christ, the Church bringing into this glory all who believe.
This sounds wonderful, inspiring and overwhelming – when we, who are the Church, the Body of which Christ is the Head, can barely get this right in our own lives, much less transform the lives and hearts of others. Our mission of making disciples of all nations sounds good on paper, but frustrating when we cannot even make disciples of our families.
How do we reconcile the glorious vision with the nitty-gritty reality of life in this world? Well, we can’t. The whole point is that they are NOT reconcilable, we must choose one and run with it. I do not mean that we do not see and care about the fallenness and brokenness of the world; what I mean is that we see it as a thin wash dimming the glorious vision, and that with faith, hope and love, the vision breaks through, illuminating hearts.
As Christians we must see the Truth, and the truth of the world is not sin and darkness, the Truth of the world is Christ, the Truth of human hearts is Christ. In the Ascension Christ took our human nature, his perfect human nature that we share, into the Godhead, we have a place there, Christ said we will be where he is. The glorious vision is a vision of our true life, our true being.
Our life in the Church, the daily discipline of prayer and study, the seasonal discipline of fasting and feasting, the Great and minor feasts of Christ’s life and the lives of the Saints and Martyrs, are to keep this reality ever before our eyes and first in our hearts and attention. That thin wash over the glory can become so dense that we cannot see through it, the Church’s life sharpens our eyes and gives us the tools we need to scrape it away.
As we go through the next ten days, between now and the Feast of Pentecost, let us keep in our hearts Christ’s words from our Gospel lesson from St. Matthew, “Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you. And know that I am with you always, until the end of the world.”
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