Precious Guidance in Life Culled from the Creed: “And Ascended into Heaven”
Leaving aside all the debates about the unmoved Mover, we know from the Gospel that our God moves and calls us to move as well. In fact, the entire divine economy is characterized by movement. In the Incarnation, the Eternal Word of God empties Himself and becomes what He was not—that is, human—moving into humanity when the Holy Spirit overshadowed the most pure Virgin Mary. After His birth, the holy family fled into Egypt moving again following an angelic command. In His three years of public ministry, the Lord walked from village to village, moving by land and by sea, until He finally rode into Jerusalem, eventually moving onward and carrying His Cross to the place of the skull, where He was crucified. But of all the movements recorded in the Gospel, there is no movement so glorious, so mysterious, and so joyful as that last movement from earth to heaven in which the Risen Lord takes humanity into a whole new and unheard of realm, to the very throne of God beyond the highest heaven. Those creedal words, “and ascended into heaven,” should make our hearts leap for joy and make us lift them up unto the Lord.
We see this same mysterious movement in the spiritual life as we strive to walk in God’s commandments, to move towards virtue, and to move away from sin. Repentance, the heart of the Christian life, is movement with a clear direction that involves emptying ourselves of our sinful thoughts and desires as well as filling ourselves with bright thoughts of radiant virtues. Repentance is a movement from the earth of human selfishness to the heaven of divine compassion. It is our own Ascension to becoming by grace sons and daughters of the highest. As Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos notes in his book, Feasts of the Lord, “The feast of the Lord’s Ascension has great meaning and importance for the Christian and spiritual life, because it is connected with the deification of every person.”
These movements remind us that the Christian life is not a matter of conformity with precepts and laws, but of following Christ wherever He goes, even to the Cross, even to a tomb, even to Heaven. Saint Gregory Palamas notes, “Do you see this shared celebration and joy of ours, which the Lord bestowed on those who believe in Him with His Resurrection and Ascension? It sprang from affliction. Do you see this life, or rather, this immortality? It shone upon us through death. Do you see the heavenly height to which Christ ascended when He was taken up, and the sublime glory with which He was glorified according to the flesh? He attained to this by means of humility and dishonor.” Two opposing movements need to take place in the human life and they are both wonderful, for they contain our wondrous Christ.
The upward movement of His Ascension necessarily points to the eschaton, the end time when Christ will come again in all His glory. When He ascended into Heaven, Christ ascended in His human flesh, His glorified, resurrected flesh, and that Ascension is a foretaste and promise to us of what awaits us at our own end of time on this earth. The Ascension reminds us that the human flesh, which was deified in its union with the divine nature of the Word, is seated on the kingly throne. Christ’s Ascension makes heaven accessible to us. Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite taught that the whole purpose of the divine economy lies in “not leaving us down on the earth, but raising us up to heaven, for our true salvation is there, and there we wish to receive back the very sweet vision of our dearest Lord.” In the Ascension of Christ to heaven, all of us share in the possibility of deification, union with Christ in eternal bliss. Saint Diadochos of Photiki notes, “For he who belongs to the incarnate God through the body can also belong to those deified by the riches of his grace, be made gods by the generous God.” The Ascension essentially and even physically means that we are made for union with God.
It is significant that the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel account of the Lord’s Ascension remark that at the time of the Lord’s Ascension, the apostles fixed their gaze heavenward. This is significant because it underscores our own posture as we await for the second coming of the Lord in glory. The fact that the apostles kept their gaze fixed on things above, rather than on things below, is a reminder to us that our true home is in heaven and that while we sojourn here on earth, we must always keep our gaze fixed on the eternal things of the spirit and the remembrance of God. This heavenward orientation is the only proper posture that can guide Christians in their movement through this life.
How can belief, a deep belief in these words of the Creed, shape our lives as Christians? First of all, we know our destination and what we were made for. We are assured of the greatness of God’s love for us. And though there are times when we may sin and feel unworthy of this earth, we recall that our very human nature has ascended into heaven where it belongs, meaning that we are worth far more than we could ever imagine. And suddenly, we find the courage to carry on. And if we feel that our sins form a wall that separates us from God, but remember the Ascension, we realize that at the right hand of the Father there is perfect, eternal peace between God and humanity that is Christ’s and that is ours, and we know that by turning to Christ that peace will be ours as well. And although we may feel like unworthy exiles of Eden, we know that by the Ascension of Christ, we are in fact citizens of heaven called to be at the right hand of God. Believing in the Ascension is a belief in the ultimate goodness of human nature and our own selves. Believing in the Ascension also assures us paradoxically that we are not alone. Saint Gregory Palamas taught that in distancing Himself from His disciples bodily, the Savior was forever with them through His Divinity. And so it is with us. Because of the Ascension, the Eternal Word is forever with us and we have forever the Lord Jesus Christ, representing the best that humanity could ever be, as an advocate before the Father.
Believing in the Ascension above all means that our life has a direction and a destination that is elevating, inspiring, glorious, and beautiful. It means that we are merely sojourners on this earth and that is a very good thing, since our true home is in the heavenly realm. With a firm belief in the Ascension in place, repentance comes easily, remembrance of God becomes as natural as taking a breath, and daily tasks and duties, interruptions, difficulties, and anxieties cannot change the fact that we are moving towards our own Jerusalem on high, towards our own Mount of Olives, and from there to the God of our hearts. When we proclaim each Sunday, “and ascended into heaven,” we are also called upon to re-affirm our commitment to seek after what is eternal. If we do so, Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension will take root in our heart and no earthly sorrow can ever take that away from us.