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May 20, 2015

The Ascension of the Lord and the Deification of Humanity

By Patriarch Daniel of Romania

The wonderful mystery of the Ascension to heaven of Jesus Christ, our Lord, has multiple and deep significance. We only want to emphasize three of them.

1) The Ascension of the Lord Means the Deification of the Human Being

The bodily ascension to heaven of Jesus Christ, our Lord, represents first of all the ascension of the human nature to the divine glory, to a dignity and honor never achieved before. "And with mercy you ascended our decayed nature and put it be together with the Father", says the Pentecostarion, while Saint John Chrysostom says that through the Ascension of Christ, our human nature "went higher than the angels, ascended over the archangels, over the cherubim and seraphim and never stopped until sitting on the throne of God".

The Vespers of the feast of the Lord's Ascension shows us that the Ascension of the Lord is the means of achieving the complete separation from the darkness of death and hell and reaching the heavenly light of eternal life, that is, the raising of human nature in the love of the Holy Trinity and its reception at the throne of the divine glory: "The angels are amazed to see humans higher than them. The Father receives in His bosom the One Whom He has always had in His bosom. The Holy Spirit orders all His angels: lift up, ye rulers, your gates! All nations clap your hands! For Christ ascended to where He was before."

This raising of the human being was possible because the Christ risen in glory never gave up the human nature, but assumed it completely and took it to the very center of the life of the Holy Trinity. Christ does not go back to heaven and does not present Himself to His Father only as God, but also as human, so that He may make us, humans, children of God according to grace in the glory of the kingdom of heaven (John 1:12 and 17:24).

Orthodox theology teaches us that the Ascension of Christ in glory and His sitting on the right side of the Father represents the full deification of His humanity and also the eternity of humanity in God, the spiritualization or full transfiguration of His human body, namely His supreme elevation to the state of "transparent milieu of the infinite love of God" - as Father Dumitru Staniloae says. The human being is raised to the supreme honor, in utmost rapprochement and full communion with his Creator, in the very intimacy of the divine existence of the Holy Trinity. Consequently, one can see that the Ascension of the human being into the divine glory was the very purpose of the descent or incarnation of the Son of God. In a sermon at the feast of the Ascension of the Lord, Saint Gregory Palamas shows that Christ was "ascended in glory and entered into the Holy of the Holies not made by hands and sat on the right side in the heavens, on the same throne of divinity, so that our nature, with which He mixed, should share in it". Thus, the Ascension of Christ in glory means the deification and glorification of the human being in the eternal love of God.

2) Christ Ascended in Glory Becomes the Life of a Christian

Nevertheless, the supreme raising of the humanity of Christ into the heart of the glory of the Holy Trinity, its place on the right side of the Father, does not mean the breaking of the communion with His disciples; it does not mean His isolation and moving away from those who believe in Him. No matter how paradoxical it may seem, the Ascension of the Lord represents, at the same time, a supreme rapprochement of God to humanity. Due to the supreme spiritualization or supreme transfiguration of the body of Christ through the Ascension, He enters those who believe in Him (John 17:26). His human nature, ascended into the intimacy of the glory of the Holy Trinity, becomes the center of the transparency of the divine grace communicated to humans through the Holy Spirit, Who makes Christ present and working in the Christians' life (John 14:16-21; 16:13-15; Galatians 2:20).

Hence, the spiritualization or full transfiguration of humanity in Christ does not mean only its raising into the divine glory, but also the assumption of His presence in other people, the dwelling of the crucified and glorified Christ in those who believe in Him and love Him, so that they may become bearers of Christ, according to His promise: "Whoever loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and my Father and I will come to him and live with him." (John 14:23).

Therefore, the God-man in heaven sits on the divine throne of glory and lives in the hearts of those who love Him. He is also in the intimacy of the Holy Trinity and in the center of the life of the Church. He ascends to heaven in glory and comes down mysteriously in the hearts of those on earth (Ephesians 1:20; 2:22; 3:17 and Colossians 1:27). In this sense, Augustine says that the Lord "has never moved away from heaven when He came down to come to us; He has not moved away from us when He ascended to go back to heaven. He was already up there, while here, down on earth, as He Himself says: 'And no one has ever gone up to heaven except the Son of God, who came down from heaven'" (John 3:13).

The Orthodox liturgical text of the feast of the Lord's Ascension shows the same truth. Thus, the kontakion says: "While accomplishing the plan for us and uniting those on earth with those in heaven, You ascended in glory, Christ our Lord, where from You have never left; but remaining close to us, You say to those who love You: I am with you and nobody is against you!"

3) The Church is the Space of Humanities Ascension to Eternal Life

Saint Gregory Palamas emphasizes the relation between the mystery of the Ascension of Christ our Lord, and the establishment of the Church through the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, when he says that the Master who is higher than heavens "ascends any time He comes down, so that He may take those down here up with those in heaven and establish one Church, heavenly and earthly, in the glory of His love for humans. So, the disciples rejoiced and went back to Jerusalem and were always at the altar, had their minds in the heavens, and they praised the Lord, preparing themselves to be ready for the announced descent of the divine Spirit".

Thus, the Church is the manifestation of the dwelling of Christ, through the Holy Spirit, in the people's hearts, as it was visibly established at Pentecost as the bestowal of the life of the One Holy Christ in the many people who believe in Him, the Head of the Church, so that they should become saints and children of God by grace (John 1:12 and Ephesians 2:18).

The feast of the Resurrection of the Lord, the feast of the Ascension of the Lord and the feast of the Pentecost are mysteriously related between themselves through the work of the Holy Spirit upon the risen body of Christ, so that through His body crucified, risen and ascended into glory He may bestow thereafter the eternal divine-human life of Christ in His Church, in order to prepare her as a bride for eternal life (cf. John 6:40 and 47; Romans 6: 22-23; Ephesians 2:6) to the glory of the Kingdom of God, the glory of the heavenly Jerusalem (cf. Revelation chapter 21).

Therefore, the Risen Christ in glory is present in the Church through the Holy Spirit, always guiding the Christians' life to the Resurrection of all human beings and to the heavenly Kingdom of the glory of the Holy Trinity, according to His promise: "When I ascend from earth, I will attract you all to Me" (John 12:32).

Consequently, the final end of the Church is the Heavenly Kingdom of the Holy Trinity, celebrated as a foretaste in the Holy Sacraments and in the entire liturgical life of the Orthodox Church. This is why it is said: "The Church is full of the Holy Trinity" (Origen) and that she is "the antechamber of the Kingdom of Heaven" (Saint Nicholas Cabasilas). And a liturgical chant says: "While staying in the Church of Your glory, we seem to be in heaven" (Matins service).