From the ASCENSION of Our Lord to PENTECOST
I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you. (John 16:22)
Christ opens his earthly ministry by receiving the Holy Spirit “as one of us” in the waters of the Jordan. He brings it to a close, at the Mystical Supper, with a promise to relay the gift to His followers. But to their great dismay, there is a condition:
Unless I go away, the Comforter will not come to you.
The liturgical hymns for the Ascension of Christ are at no loss to interpret the meaning of this event for all creation: “The Lord ascended into heaven so that He could send the Comforter into the world.”
Moses rescued the Israelites from Egypt and shepherded their struggles for forty years in the desert; but it was another who led them into the Promised Land. Jesus of Navi leads the Israelites across the Jordan to apportion their inheritance in the Promised Land, as will the Lord Jesus in His Kingdom. The Law represented by Moses points to the Kingdom, but its gates lift up for none other than the King of Glory, who goes there to prepare a place for His friends.
Having emptied Himself for our sake, Christ returns to the Father’s bosom from which, as God, he was never parted – but with a difference, for He returns “where He was before” with his human flesh. Apparently man must enter the kingdom of heaven, in order for the Kingdom of heaven – that is, the Holy Spirit – to re-enter mankind.
Created by God in His own triune image, we returned the favor to Him, said Saint Anastasios of Sinai, by providing the unity of our soul and body, the synthesis of our spiritual and material creation, to Christ as the image of His incarnation; the unity of His divine and human natures in a single Person.
“Thou didst raise our fallen nature and seat it with the Father,” exults the Church, and “the Angels marvel to see a man above themselves in heaven.”
But if I go, I will send Him to you.
Christ repeatedly assures His disciples that they will not be left orphans. “I will ask the Father, and He will send you another Comforter to be with you forever … The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.”
Without knowing the rational Word of the Father, in Whom they received their very being, “how could humans even be rational?” asked Saint Athanasios the Great. “Why did God make them at all, if He did not wish to be known by them?”
With knowledge of nothing but earthly things, he observes, there would be nothing to distinguish humans even from brute creatures.
Anastasios of Sinai goes so far as to say that humans were made in the image and likeness of God solely so that they would not hesitate to accept the mystery of the Holy Trinity, being able to discern the elements of the trinitarian relationships of God within their own soul. God became man so that man could become god, teach the Orthodox saints, not through the loss of his rational powers, but through their illumination by the Holy Spirit.
Archbishop Damianos has raised his voice in warning against the choices of a society that chooses not to know Christ, deceiving itself into believing that His teachings could ever be outmoded; thus refusing to admit the obvious, that without His “present and eternal presence with us” – there is no hope.
“Man’s self-determination – the characteristic that makes him practically a god at his creation – was greatly wounded at the fall of mankind,” His Eminence says. “Had they not fallen, had they remained in obedience to God, the first humans would have easily progressed toward theosis (union with God); for having created man, God knew both the strengths and limits of this creature that he had fashioned differently from every other. This means that, provided with the self-determination that functions always in conjunction with rationality, the first humans knew that God understood their limits.
“Had man managed to remain unfaltering in obedience to God given this knowledge, he would have acquired the incorruptibility and immortality for which he was destined.
“How can self-determination, which means free will, submit itself to obedience? There is a subtle balance implied here, in which a monk, for example, follows the ‘yes’ of the abbot, while simultaneously exercising his own free will.
“Human beings were not created to remain in the paradise that Scripture calls the “Garden of Delight.” The Greek word for ‘delight’ refers only to material nourishment. The Garden of Delight is merely the ‘primordial’ paradise, the beginning of a perfected state. What does the enjoyment of material pleasures have to do with theosis? The ‘perfect’ paradise is the Kingdom of God.
“Adam and Eve failed to reach this perfection. Instead they found themselves outside the primordial paradise as unworthy to remain there. They remained with the results of their poorly exercised self-determination.”
And when He comes, He will reprove the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.
Those who kill you will consider it worship of God, Christ tells His followers, “because they have known neither the Father nor Me.” The Spirit reproves the world by revealing Christ as God beyond any shadow of a doubt, says Saint John Chrysostom of this passage from the Mystical Supper (John 16), in which Christ then points to the shared energies of the Holy Trinity:
“But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth, for He will not speak on his own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take what is Mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is Mine; therefore I said that He will take what is Mine and declare it to you.”
It is at the Ascension, at His last appearance as God on Earth, that the Lord reminds His Apostles for the last time, indeed with His parting words, to expect the gift of the Holy Spirit. With this grace, they will receive power to act as His witnesses “to the very ends of the earth” – the same grace of the Holy Spirit that was lost from Adam at the fall of mankind, and reclaimed by Christ on our behalf in the Jordan.
The same grace, bequeathed to all generations, of the Mysteries of the Holy Orthodox faith, instituted by Christ in fulfillment of the promise of His Ascension: Baptism and Holy Chrism, Confession and Holy Communion, Marriage, Ordination, and Holy Unction – in short, the restoration to health not only of human free will, but of every blessing bestowed on humankind for its perfection in that most evasive of all successes - incorruptible happiness, whether in this life, or the next ...
Monasteries are cauldrons of humanity, like any other institution, and have their ups and downs. But there is a beauty to the life not met with on the outside, against which the greatest civilization pales. The elegance of holiness cannot be described, except perhaps through its effect on those nearby. One is bemused to see people normally alienated by their passions gather around a holy elder, drawn like bees to honey, antipathies brushed away like so many unwanted flies. Or moved beyond words, on another occasion, to see the tear-filled eyes of a lost soul suddenly opened wide to the Truth at the mere sight of a God-bearing father, freed of the mockeries succumbed to in the name of ‘religion’. The presence of the Holy Spirit in the sanctified is palpable, even tactile to the soul – αἰσθητή!
Christos, of course, means “anointed.” Therefore, upon ascent from the waters of Orthodox baptism the newly illumined is sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is through the mystical chrism of anointment that “you are properly called christs,” and therefore Christians, says Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, for “through this Holy Chrism and by means of it, God Himself is present and energizes within us.”
A single message is central not only to the Ascension, not only to the great mystery of Christ’s ministry on earth, but to the entire biblical tradition founded in the revelation to Moses on Sinai: the soul’s union with God through the divine energies of the Holy Spirit – for the Son of God becomes man for no other reason.
You ascended in glory, O Christ our God,
granting joy to Your Disciples
by the promise of the Holy Spirit.
Through the blessing, they were assured
that You are the Son of God
the Redeemer of the world.