Sunday after the Ascension, 2020

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!

The Sunday after the Ascension and before Pentecost: it is something of an anomaly—outside Paschaltide, so we no longer sing the Easter Troparion, ‘Christ is risen…’, but still before Pentecost, so we don’t yet use the prayer ‘Heavenly King, Comforter…’ There are so many themes one could develop from that: particularly that this is a Sunday of waiting, waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit, waiting for, and looking towards his coming. And like all liturgical moments, it both belongs to its place in the liturgical year—like the apostles, we are waiting, as it were in the upper room, for the promise of the Father to send the Spirit—and reminds us of something that is always true: we are always waiting for the coming of the Spirit, always calling on the Spirit to come—this moment of invocation, calling on the Spirit, epiklesis, is a fundamental mode of our Christian life. We await the Spirit; we don’t possess the Spirit. But this Sunday is also the Sunday in the Afterfeast of the Ascension—much that we sing today relates to the Ascension—and also is the day on which we commemorate the Fathers of the First Œcumenical Council of Nicaea, called by the Emperor Constantine, whose own feast we celebrated barely a week ago. So today, whatever else we do, we are to meditate on the meaning of the Ascension—the mystery of the Ascension. I have already said something about this on the Feast itself; I want to say a little more now.

Let us start by recalling the kontakion of the Feast:

When you had fulfilled your dispensation for us, and united things on earth with things in heaven, you were taken up in glory, Christ God; in no way divided, but remaining inseparable, you cried out to those who loved you: I am with you, and there is no one against you.

Note two things: Christ has been ‘taken up in glory’, but this is not seen as leaving the earth and going to heaven, rather as ‘uniting things on earth with things in heaven’—we are now, in Christ, in heaven; our ‘hearts are on high’—Ἄνω σχῶμεν τὰς καρδίας. And then this is underlined: ‘in no way divided—χωριζόμενος, but remaining inseparable—ἀδιάστατος’. Those two words recall, and I am sure are meant to recall, the way in which, according to the Council of Chalcedon, Christ possesses his two natures, the divine and the human: ἀσυγχύτως, ἀτρέπτως, ἀδιαιρέτως, ἀχωρίστως—unconfusedly, unchanged, undividedly, inseparably—there is no confusion or change in the natures of Christ; he is both fully divine and fully human undividedly and inseparably. And so here: Christ our God has ascended in his humanity, and in heaven on the right hand of the Father, where is no division or separation between his two natures. And that human nature, the human nature God the Word assumed from the Mother of God in his Incarnation—that nature is ours; through it we are present—in no way divided, but remaining inseparable—in heaven with God.

Let us look at another verse for the Feast: the doxastikon at Vespers:

Not separated from the fatherly bosom, most sweet Jesus, and associated with those on earth as human, today from the mount of Olives you are received up in glory; and you raise up our fallen nature, sitting down together with the Father. At this the heavenly ranks of the bodiless ones are amazed at the wonder, beside themselves in astonishment, and seized with fear, as they magnify your love for human kind. Together with them, we upon earth, glorify your coming down to be with us, and your being assumed from us…

The astonishment of the heavenly beings is taken up elsewhere: what is this new thing in heaven? this material humanity! How can the angels be astonished? How can there be anything new in heaven (the Preacher in the Old Testament thought there was nothing new upon the earth: but in heaven?!). Look at another verse:

When you were taken up, Christ, from the Mount of Olives, the Powers saw and cried one to another, What is this? And he said to them, This is one mighty and powerful, this is one powerful in battle; this is truly the King of Glory. And why are his robes red? He is coming from Bosor, that is, in the flesh… [a flesh bloodied by his fighting on our behalf]

Amazement in heaven: because the union with God and the human in Christ, the union of things on earth and in heaven, is ‘in no way divided, but remains inseparable’. Behind that lies the union of Christ with his Father—a union of will and purpose and being that breathes through the great high-priestly prayer, part of which formed our Gospel today. The doxastikon just quoted begins: ‘Not separated from the fatherly bosom’, echoing the last verse of St John’s prologue (curiously, the one verse we never read liturgically): ‘No one has ever seen God; the only-begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him’ (John 1: 18). It is the union of the Father and the Son, union in which they are distinct (when the Son prays to the Father, he is not praying to himself), a union, where there is no division and no separation—that is the very principle on which all else rests. Which is, I think, why we commemorate the Fathers of the First Œcumenical Council of Nicaea today, for the crucial bit of the creed they affirmed—the one word over which there was such controversy for much of the fourth century—is the word ὁμοούσιος, ‘consubstantial’ as our translation of the liturgy has it, ‘one in being’: the Father and the Son are not separated, not divided, but they belong intimately to each other, ‘one in being’. By the time of the fourth Œumenical Council, that of Chalcedon in the next century, consubstantial with the Father’ had been complemented by ‘consubstantial with us’, ὁμοούσιος ἡμῖν. Christ is to be seen, not as a god visiting us from heaven, but one who belongs within the Triune  Godhead and has come to be one of us—and has overcome everything that works against the unity of humanity and God, all the sin and waywardness and ignorance that humanity has brought upon itself, and ‘united things on earth with things in heaven’, as he is lifted up on the Cross and glorified; so he cries out to us: ‘I am with you, and there is no one against you!’ Therefore, we have the confidence to address God as Father and to say, ‘Our Father…’; therefore our hearts are on high—‘we have them with the Lord’. Therefore, whatever struggles we face in this life—and there will be struggle, as the Lord warned his disciples: ‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you; not as the world gives do I give you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid… Be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world’ (John 14: 27; 16: 33). Or, as the apostle John said in his first letter, ‘for greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world’ (1 John 4: 4). Amen!

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