You were made for so much more than this! That is the message of today’s Feast of the Ascension: You were meant for so much more than what this world has to offer. Today we celebrate the final event of the Paschal Mystery that we have been observing ever since Good Friday – the central events of our Lord’s life – His Death, Resurrection, and Ascension. The Ascension is the part that is frequently left out. Easter is such a miraculous event that everything else seems insignificant by comparison. But if we don’t make it to the Ascension, we miss how it applies to us. Christ’s ascension reveals not just the rest of His story, but ours as well.
We can see the deeper meaning of the Ascension in a beautiful hymn from Matins today (the first of the Church’s official prayers each day). Allow me to share part of the lyrics of that hymn with you:
Eternal Monarch, King most high,
Whose blood hath brought redemption nigh,
By whom the death of death was wrought,
And conquering grace’s battle fought:
Ascending by the starry road,
This day thou wentest home to God,
By heaven to power unending called,
And by no human hand installed.
That so, in nature’s triple frame,
Each heavenly and each earthly name,
And things in hell’s abyss abhorred,
May bend the knee and own him Lord.
Yea, angels tremble when they see
How changed is our humanity;
That flesh hath purged what flesh had stained,
And God, the flesh of God, hath reigned.
Be thou our joy, O mighty Lord,
As thou wilt be our great reward;
Earth’s joys to thee are nothing worth,
Thou joy and crown of heaven and earth.
To thee we therefore humbly pray
That thou wouldst purge our sins away,
And draw our hearts by cords of grace
To thy celestial dwelling-place.
So when the judgement day shall come,
And all must rise to meet their doom,
Thou wilt remit the debts we owe,
And our lost crowns again bestow.
In order better to understand the mystery of the Ascension, then, let’s take a closer look at some lines from this ancient and beautiful hymn:
The first stanza tells us that Christ is the One “by whom the death of death was wrought.” It is hard for us to imagine what life would be like without sin. Before sin entered the world, our first human parents had the gift of immortality – had they not sinned, they would not have died (either living even until now or, more likely, themselves ascending into Heaven after reaching an old age). Death, pain, and suffering were not a part of the original plan! Our experience of reality is like driving a car with square wheels. If you didn’t know what round wheels were like, driving would be a rather unpleasant endeavor. You’d constantly wonder why getting around had to be so unpleasant and difficult, and you’d wonder why automobile manufacturers couldn’t figure out a better way to do things.
So likewise is this life under the influence of sin – we wonder and question why this life is so difficult, but God did not want it to be this way, and He did not abandon the world that He created out of love. He sent His only Son – the only One not deserving of the punishment due for sin, who “wrought the death of death” by submitting to the power of sin, by becoming sin for us, in St. Paul’s words, though He did not know sin (2 Cor 5:21).
How is it, though, that Christ is able to do this? The hymn tells us, “Flesh hath purged what flesh had stained.” It was through their bodies that our first human parents committed the first sin, depicted in the Book of Genesis as eating a piece of fruit. It is in our bodies too that we experience the effects of sin – death, suffering, an inability to control our carnal instincts. So it was in human flesh that Christ became our Savior by winning freedom from sin on the Cross. From the wood of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil Adam plucked the fruit of death, and on the wood of the Cross the new Adam, Christ, won the fruits of salvation.
But why does it matter? What does this all change for us? “That flesh hath purged what flesh had stained / And God, the flesh of God, hath reigned.” The fact that God reigns in the flesh of Christ – in humanity made perfect – is an important corrective to the ancient idea known as Gnosticism. Gnosticism was highly influential in the early days of Christianity. It said that the source of all weakness in humanity is in our flesh, that we have to escape the body in order to be holy, or that whatever happens with our bodies doesn’t really affect our souls because they are so disconnected. This isn’t just an ancient idea, though – it has a lot of modern ramifications as well.
First, the disconnect between body and soul is still widely influential in Christianity, especially among those Christian communities that regard that works done in the body cannot benefit our eternal salvation. An even more influential idea, though, is the notion that something done in the body does not have any bearing on one’s spiritual life, so long as one’s heart is “in the right place.”
On the contrary, the Ascension shows us that Christ reigns in His glorified body. Or to put it more powerfully, “The flesh of God reigns.” This means that our bodies are gifts from the Lord to be consecrated to Him and made holy by our way of life. It means that we should discipline them through fasting and works of penance – not to make ourselves feel guilty, but to train them to reflect the glory with which Christ reigns in the same flesh that He shares with us.
“Yea, angels tremble when they see / How changed is our humanity.” Christ’s victory over death means that all of human nature is transformed. It is raised even above all the angels. St. Leo the Great describes what it was like in Heaven to witness the arrival of the Lord: “It was a great and unspeakable cause for joy to see the Manhood … exalted above all creatures … rising above the ranks of the angelic armies and speeding Its glorious way where the most noble of the Archangels lie far behind, to rest no lower than that place where … It taketh Its seat at the right hand of the Eternal Father, Sharer of His throne, and Partaker of His glory, and still of the very man’s nature which the Son hath taken upon Him.”
What is incredible about this quote from St. Leo, one of the great doctors of the Church, is that he says all this not just about Christ, but precisely about the human nature, the Manhood, that Christ possesses and shares with you. The human nature that Christ shares with you was taken past all the Archangels to sit at the Father’s right hand and partake of His glory. If that is true of Christ’s human nature than it is true of yours as well! You were meant for so much more! You were meant to be transformed so that your humanity might shine with splendor just like Christ’s.
The angels knew about God’s plan for redemption from the beginning of the world. They knew that first sin, that happy fault, would set in motion this magnificent plan that would raise fallen man even beyond their own privileged state. Many of the angels rejoiced at God’s greatness that He would show by so glorious a redemption. But some of them did not. Lucifer, the greatest of the angels, fell precisely out of jealousy for what Christ would do – over how He would raise those lowly humans – weak, pathetic creatures compared with the power possessed by the angels – over and beyond their ranks.
Think about that the next time the Devil comes whispering in your ear. That pathetic and miserable beast fell precisely because he was jealous of you. Don’t let him pull you down – you were meant for greater things! He wants you to be miserable like him, but God has destined you to be glorified in your body – to partake in the glory Christ has at the Father’s right hand.
“To thee we therefore humbly pray / That thou wouldst purge our sins away, / And draw our hearts by cords of grace / To thy celestial dwelling-place.” So what do I do now? How do I obtain this glory promised to me? We must be made clean by God’s forgiveness. Our souls were once radiant with God’s grace at our Baptism, but we have sullied them over time with our unfaithfulness. We must ask God for forgiveness. Make a good confession – talk to the priest about what your habitual struggles are and what you need to do to overcome them. Root sin out of your life and strengthen that cord by which God wants to pull you to heaven.
You must also continue strengthening that cord by forming a deep and personal relationship with Christ. To do that, you need a consistent and substantial amount of time devoted to prayer, especially by encountering Christ in the Scriptures. You need a group of people who share that friendship with Christ to hold you accountable and to share the journey of growing in friendship with Christ.
God is not content for His Son to reign in Heaven. He wants us – sons and daughters in the Son – to reign as well. The crowns we lost in Adam’s disobedience “He will bestow.” The Ascension is not just something that happened two thousand years ago, and not just a promise for the end of our lives. It is for here and now. Let’s go back to the car with square wheels as a metaphor for the world under the power of sin. What if you realized that the entire system of driving had been sabotaged, that driving wasn’t supposed to be awkward and clunky but smooth and enjoyable? What if you realized that once, when cars were first invented, the wheels were round? And what if you figured out that the wheels on your car could be round too.
Thus St. Leo tells us, “This day is not only the possession of Paradise made sure unto us, but in the Person of our Head [that is, Christ] we have actually begun to enter into the heavenly mansions above. Through the unspeakable goodness of Christ, we have gained more than ever we lost by the envy of the devil. We, whom our venomous enemy thrust from our first happy home, we, being made of one body with the Son of God, have by Him been given a place at the right hand of the Father.”
Yes, sin is tragic and has radically misshapen the world. Yes, the world in which we live is severely imperfect. But that is not the end of the story! You were meant for so much more. What we have gained is even more than the perfection we lost through the Devil’s intrigue. Why? How could that be so? Why wouldn’t it have been better if they just hadn’t sinned in the first place?
Really, it’s simple: What we gave up was our perfection. What we gained was Christ’s. Today, the “felix cupla,” the happy fault, the necessary sin of Adam is complete. Today, we arrive where we started, and we know the place for the first time. (Little Gidding, V). When Christ ascends into Heaven, all of human history finally makes sense. It is the completion of all that was promised, the destiny that should have been, and the destiny that is and is even better.
We have an incredible destiny, but to achieve it will cost no less than everything. If you want Him to pull you into Heaven with Him, you must strengthen the cord that links you: By re-dedicating your life to Him, by repenting of sin, by rooting habitual sins out of your life, by starting or going deeper in a substantial habit of prayer, and by finding of community of other disciples to sustain you.
“All glory, Lord, to thee we pay, / Ascending o’er the stars today; / All glory, as is ever meet, To Father and to Paraclete. Amen.”
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, A.D. MMXIX
Image: The Ascension of Christ (1304-06), by Giotto (c.1267-1337)