The Ascension of Christ

MP3 Audio:  WS330292_Dn-Joseph_Ascension.mp3

This homily was preached on Sunday morning, June 16, 2013,
at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Dn. Joseph Gleason.

~

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, our God is one.

How many as kids ever sat in Sunday school in a church, colored pictures of Noah in his ark, pictures of Adam and Eve with strategically placed animals and fig leaves, black and white pictures of Jesus walking on the water–get out your Crayolas and mark it down. And there are these stories that are a part of our faith, our heritage. And some of them, it’s very obvious to us how they apply to us.

When we see Jesus crucified for us on that tree, we know that’s for us. Our sin, our death, our corruption, our laryngitis, it is all put on the cross. And He goes into death, He rises again, and then–as the Paschal hymn goes–Christ trampled down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. Some of the stories, we know how they apply to us.

But sometimes, there are some parts of the story that I think it’s easy for us to just think,  “Well, yeah, that’s a nice family story that we tell. Grandma had that time that she got lost at this truck stop in Oklahoma and couldn’t get home, blah blah blah.” And you talk about it, and everybody laughs, and it’s this great family story, but there is no real meaning to it. There is no application to today.

And I think it’s easy for the same thing to happen. We say, “Yeah, so-and-so was the president of the United States in the year 1812.” How does that really apply to me today? It’s just trivia; it’s just a fact.

“Well, yeah, Jesus walked on the water. That’s really cool, but how does that apply to me today? It’s just something that I know happened way back when.” And yet when we dig deeper, we find out that these are not just stories, they are not just trivia. They actually do apply to us today. It’s more than just our family history. It is actually part of our living, current faith.

So what do we think about, when we think about Adam and Eve? It’s not just a story of two people skinny-dipping in the Garden of Eden. There’s all kinds of funny jokes that are made about it, and a lot of them are pretty funny, but that’s a serious thing! That’s our great-great-great-great-grandfather and great-great-great-great-grandma. And when they sinned against God, well, that’s why I have laryngitis today. That’s where all sin, death, corruption, flowed all out of that initial disobedience–what the Orthodox call the “ancestral sin”.

And so, every time a baby has spina bifida, every time you have a downs syndrome child, every time you have somebody with a fibromyalgia, who wants to be out and about and working or at church worshiping and they can’t, that’s because of what Adam and Eve did. It is because of that ancestral sin, and that death, and that corruption the flows into the human race from our first parents.

When we look at the Ascension of Christ–and that’s the season that we are in right now, that 10 days from the Ascension to Pentecost (Whitsunday)–We are in that period of the Ascension. If you notice, the light on the Paschal candle is not lit. We put it out just after the Gospel reading on Ascension Day, because now the light of Christ visibly is no longer here, for He has ascended into the heavens. He is sitting at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.

How is that practical to us? We all believe it, we all confess it, we all say, “Yeah, I believe Jesus rose up into the air.” But is it just trivia to us? Does it mean any more to us than saying “Oh! Michael Jordan jumped higher than any of the other basketball players”? Well, it is different in a very important way, because when we clap our hands for Michael Jordan jumping higher than any other basketball player, or for Nolan Ryan pitching more strikeouts than any other baseball player, we are talking about what some guy did, unique from everybody else.

When we look at Jesus ascending the heavens, after having conquered death and the grave, we are looking at something that–thanks to the Gospel–is not unique at all.  He’s  just the trailblazer, He’s the first. And that means you’re next, and you’re next, and you’re next, and you’re next. For we too will trample down death by death. We too will conquer the grave and rise up from it. And guess what? According to the Scriptures, we too will ascend into the heavens.

We clap our hands for Michael Jordan, and we can clap all day long, and you’re still not going to make as many slam dunks as he did. You can cheer for Nolan Ryan all you want to, and you’re still not going to pitch as many strikeouts as he did.

But when we cheer for Jesus, we are cheering for our elder brother, our God, who came for us, who became incarnate, who took on our humanity. And when He ascended into heaven, He took that humanity and He raised it up into the very presence of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And by our being related to him by blood, and by being covered in His blood, we too will arise.

So it is not just a piece of trivia. It is not just some family story. It is not just some Guinness Book of World Records, somebody that did something unique that nobody else has ever done before or will ever do again. It is something that we–by the grace of God–will follow in those same footsteps and do the same things that He did. We will rise from the dead. We will ascend into heavens.

This also has a bearing on the very way that we worship. Has it ever occurred to you that if it were not for the Ascension, that we would not have icons in church? Have you ever thought about that? Now, that is not quite true, we would have some of them. We would have this one . . . it is a Guardian Angel icon. There’s one around here, the Archangel Michael, we would have that one. But when you look in the Old Testament, when you look at Jewish worship in Jerusalem, did they have icons is in the Temple? Yes they did–two-dimensional and three-dimensional–but it was all angels.

You see, we get this idea in our minds of all these Old Testament saints being just like us us now, and dying, and going straight up into heaven. But I don’t think that is accurate from an Orthodox perspective. It says in Scripture, and also according to Orthodox tradition, that “Hades” is not synonymous with “Hell.” Hades was the underworld. Now, put all the sci-fi movies out of your mind for a moment; that’s not where we are going. But there was an underworld called Hades, divided into two portions. One portion is what we would think of as Hell, where the wicked go. Then there’s this great chasm, and they can’t cross from one side to the other. And on the other side of Hades is what they called “Abraham’s Bosom”, where the righteous dead would go. Whether you were righteous or unrighteous, you went to Hades. You didn’t go to Heaven.

And Luke chapter 16, we see the rich man and Lazarus die, and the rich man goes to where the wicked go. Lazarus goes to Abraham’s Bosom. They can look across and see each other. They can’t cross from one side to the other, but they can see each other.

We see Samuel called up by a witch–the witch of Endor–in the Old Testament. And it doesn’t show him descending from the heavens, but just appearing. It shows him kind of coming up out of the ground. I believe he was in the righteous, peaceful, heavenly side of Hades, Abraham’s Bosom. He was not in torment. He was happy. But Jesus had not come yet. The doors to heaven had not yet been opened for humanity.

Now you have some rare exceptions. Yes, in Isaiah chapter 6, you hear Isaiah the prophet say, “I was high and lifted up, and I beheld the King in His glory, and the train of His robe filled the temple.” But this is a special vision given to a prophet of God. This is while he was still alive. This is not where he went when he died. You look at Moses. He was taken up on the mountain. And it says in Scripture that the entire Old Testament worship system was patterned after what Moses saw on the mountain (Hebrews 8:5).

God gave Moses a view into heavenly worship. And that’s how he ended up making the Temple, the Tabernacle. And in the Tabernacle, and then later in the Temple, have you noticed that all of the icons–100% of them–were of Angels? That’s because God had not become incarnate yet, so there was no physical Jesus in Heaven. God was just spirit, so there were no icons of God. And in the Old Testament Temple, there were no icons of saints. It was all angels, but there are lots and lots and lots of them. They had statues of angels made of gold in the holy of holies, huge statues of angels spread across the room with their wings touching the middle, just above the Ark of the covenant. On the Ark of the covenant itself were little statues of angels, hammered with gold. And in the veil between the holy of holies and the holy place, there is this huge curtain. And woven into that curtain were two-dimensional images of angels.

So just imagine walking into a worship place that is filled with incense and covered with icons. Can you relate? It sounds very similar to what we do now, but there’s a difference. In Old Testament worship, there were no pictures of people anywhere on the walls.

But then when Jesus rises from the dead, and 40 days later ascends into Heaven, that is the day in which He took our humanity into the presence of God–not in Hades, in the comfortable side of Hades–but literally took our humanity into the very presence of God, into Heaven. And now in our New Testament worship, we have images of Angels still, and images of Jesus our incarnate Lord, and images of the saints, whom Jesus took up there with Him. Remember that on Holy Saturday, Jesus wasn’t just chilling out, doing nothing. He was busy.

He had been put to death on the cross. He had been laid in the tomb. On Sunday He would rise again. But in-between, on Holy Saturday, He was harrowing hell. He was preaching to the spirits in prison. To those who had been righteous, He came and said, “You know, the one that you were looking for, the one that you trusted would come, that’s Me.”

And I believe–and many in the Orthodox Church also believe–that he also preached to those on the other side, and said, “Okay, now I’m actually here, if you want to come onto My side.” And all who would receive Him, all who accepted Him–He empties out the bowels of Hell. We have on the icon of the resurrection, there are the gates of Hades broken, Jesus standing above them, having conquered death and Hell, and with his own hands lifting Adam and Eve out of the pit. Christ has trampled down death by death!

Jesus took our humanity, and all the souls that had waited in Hades for so long–even the patriarchs, even the prophets, the saints of old–and we read this in the book of Hebrews, that they went their whole lives, not receiving the promise. And then later on it says that they might not be complete without us, us being the Church. So when Jesus finally comes and founds the Church, when Jesus finally comes and dies on the cross, and conquers death  through His resurrection, that is when He harrows Hell. That is when He harrows Hades. And finally, all these people that have trusted in Him, and have waited in comfort–but still waiting, waiting for the Messiah–they are finally ushered into the very presence, the right hand of God in Heaven, with the angels.

And that is reflected in our iconography, which moved from angels only in the Old Testament worship, to having angels and the saints and our risen Lord in our iconography now.

So in at least two–and probably many more, but in at least two–ways, the Ascension of Christ is directly relevant to us today:

  1. The Ascension affects the way that we worship, in that we have icons in our churches, of the saints and of Christ.
  2. The Ascension is something that we ourselves will follow, if we are faithful. We will not be resurrected unto shame and damnation. But we will be resurrected, and we ourselves will be caught up into the presence of God, just as Christ was 2000 years ago.

So for that, let us be thankful for the faith that we have in the Orthodox Church, this faith, not just in the death of Christ, not just in the resurrection of Christ, but in his Ascension to the very right hand of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, our God is one.

~

This homily was preached on Sunday morning, June 16, 2013,
at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Dn. Joseph Gleason.

 

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About Fr Joseph Gleason

I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with eight children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog here at The Orthodox Life.
This entry was posted in 1 Samuel 28, Ascension Day, Fr. Joseph Gleason, Hebrews 11, Hebrews 8:5, Icons, Isaiah 6, Luke 16:19-27, Sculpture. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Ascension of Christ

  1. gboy1973 says:

    good work,nice layout,GREAT BLOG!!!

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