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June 10, 2021

First Homily on the Ascension of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ (St. Gregory Palamas)


On the Ascension of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ

Also Describing How the Sabbath As Laid Down in the Law is Fulfilled

By St. Gregory Palamas

1. The Jews kept the Feast of the Passover, the crossing from Egypt to the land of Palestine, as laid down in their law, and we have celebrated the gospel Pascha, the passage of our human nature in Christ from death to life (cf. JN. 5:24; I JN. 3:14), from corruption to incorruption (cf. I COR. 15:42, 50). What words can express the superiority of this celebration over the solemnities of the old law and the events commemorated on its holy days? No one can adequately state how much more excellent it is. The enhypostatic Wisdom of the most high Father, God's pre-eternal Word who is beyond all being, who was united with us in His love for mankind and lived among us (JN. 1:14), has now revealed through His actions a cause for celebration even more distinctly superior than Pascha's excellence. For we now celebrate the transition of our nature in Him, not just from the subterranean regions up on to the earth, but from the earth to the heaven of heavens, and to the throne above the heavens of Him who rules over all.

2. Today the Lord not only stood with His disciples after His resurrection, but was also parted from them and was taken up into heaven as they watched (Acts 1.9-11), ascended and entered into the true Holy of Holies and sat down on the right hand of the Father, far above all principality and power and every name and honor that is known and named, either in this world, or in that which is to come (cf. Eph. 1.20-21). There were many resurrections before Christ’s resurrection, and similarly, there were many ascensions before His ascension. The Spirit lifted up Jeremiah the prophet, and an angel took up Habakkuk (Bel & Dr. 33-39 LXX). In particular it is written that Elijah went up with a chariot of fire (2 Kgs. 2.11). But even he did not go beyond the realms of earth, and the ascension of each of those mentioned was just a sort of movement lifting them up from the ground without taking them out of the area surrounding the earth. Similarly, the others who were resurrected all died and returned to the earth. By contrast, Christ has risen and death no longer has dominion over Him (cf. Rom. 6.9), and now He has ascended and sat down on high, every height is below Him and bears witness that He is God over all (Rom. 9.5).

3. The Master’s body is the visible mountain of which Isaiah speaks, the Lord’s house above the tops of all the mountains of reason (cf. Is. 2.2 LXX). Neither an angel nor a man, but the incarnate Lord Himself came and saved us, being made like us for our sake while remaining unchanged as God. In the same way as He came down, without changing place but condescending to us, so He returns once more, without moving as God, but enthroning on high our human nature which He had assumed. It was truly right that the first begotten nature from the dead (Rev. 1.5) should be presented there to God, as firstfruits from the first crop offered for the whole race of men.

4. Although many resurrections and ascensions have taken place, we celebrate none of them as we do the Lord’s resurrection and ascension, because we neither have nor ever shall have any share in those others. All we gained from them was to be led towards faith in our Savior’s resurrection and ascension, in which we all share now and in the future. His resurrection and ascension are the resurrection and ascension of our human nature; and not just of our human nature, but of everyone who believes in Christ and shows his faith in works (cf. Jas. 2.18). Christ was unbegotten and uncreated according to His divinity, and it was for our sake that He became man. He lived as He did because of us, teaching us the path that leads back to true life. Everything he suffered in the flesh He suffered for us to heal our passions. On account of our sins He was led to death, and for us He rose and ascended, preparing our own resurrection and ascension for unending eternity. For all the heirs of everlasting life follow as far as possible the pattern of His saving work on earth.

5. We start this imitation of Christ with holy baptism, which symbolizes the Lord’s burial and resurrection. Virtuous living and conduct in accord with the gospel are its intermediate stage, and its perfection is victory through spiritual struggles against the passions, which procures painless, indestructible, heavenly life. As the apostle tells us: “If ye live in the flesh, ye shall die; but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (cf. Rom. 8.13). Those who live according to Christ imitate what He did in the flesh. Just as He died physically, so in time everyone dies, but we shall also rise again in the flesh as He did, glorified and immortal, not now but in due course, when we shall also ascend, as Paul says: for “we shall be caught up,” he says, “in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air; and so shall we ever be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4.17).

6. Do you see that any of us who wishes will share in the Lord's resurrection, and will be an heir of God and joint-heir with Christ (cf. Rom. 8:17)? That is why we joyfully celebrate the resurrection of our human nature, its exaltation and sitting down on high, and also the starting point of the resurrection and ascension of each of the faithful, publicly proclaiming the word of today's Gospel reading, that when the Lord had risen, He stood in the midst of His disciples (Lk. 24:36-53).

7. Why did He stand in their midst and afterwards accompany them? “And He led them out,” it says, “as far as to Bethany, and He lifted up His hands, and blessed them” (Lk. 24:50). He did it to show that He was completely whole and unharmed, to prove that His feet, that had endured being pierced by nails, were sound and trod firmly, that His hands, that had been likewise nailed to the Cross, and His side, that had been pierced by the spear, were whole, even though they bored the signs of the wounds as confirmation of the saving passion. I think that the words, “He stood in the midst of His disciples” (cf. Lk. 24:36), also imply that their faith in Him was strengthened by the way He appeared and blessed them. He did not just stand among them all, but stood in the midst of each one’s heart and it was strengthened through faith, so that the psalmist’s words, “God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved” (Ps. 46:5), can be applied to each of their hearts. For from then on the Lord’s apostles became steadfast and immovable.

8. So He stood in the midst of them and said: “Peace be unto you” (Lk. 24:36), that sweet, penetrating, and familiar salutation. There are two kinds of peace: peace with God, which is above all the fruits of godliness, and peace with one another, which arises naturally from the words of the Gospel. At that time the Lord gave them both by His one greeting. When He first sent them out He told them, “Into whatsoever house ye enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house’” (Lk. 10:5). Now He did exactly that, and entering the house where they were gathered, He straightway gave them peace. He saw that they were frightened and troubled by the unexpected and strange sight—“and supposed,” it says, “that they had seen a spirit” (Lk. 24:37), that is, that the person they saw was a phantom. So once more He told them what was happening in their own hearts, revealed that He was the one to whom they had said before the passion and resurrection, “Now are we sure that Thou knowest all things, and needest not that any man should ask Thee” (Jn. 16:30), and proposed that they reassure themselves by examining and touching Him. Once He saw that they had accepted the truth, He gave further confirmation for them to scrutinize by taking food while they watched, as well as sharing fellowship and peace with them. “And while they yet believed not and wondered,” certainly not because they dissented, but for joy, “He said unto them, ‘Have ye any meat?’ And they gave Him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And He took it, and did eat it before them” (Lk. 24:41-43).

9. That incorruptible body was fed after the resurrection, not because it needed food, but to prove it had risen and to demonstrate that it was the same one as He had eaten with them before the passion. It did not, however, consume the food in the way that mortal bodies do, but by divine energy, as, so to speak, fire dissolves wax, except that fire has to have fuel to sustain it, whereas immortal bodies do not need food for sustenance.

10. The piece of baked fish and the honeycomb which He ate were also symbols of Christ's mystery. The Word of God united Himself hypostatically with our human nature, which was like a fish swimming in the waters of pleasure-loving, passionate life. By the unapproachable divine fire of His Godhead He cleansed this nature of every tendency towards passion, and made it equal to God, and, as it were, red hot. The Lord came to send fire upon the earth (cf. Luke 12:49), and through participation in this fire He makes divine not just the human substance which He assumed for our sake, but every person who is found worthy of communion with Him. On the other hand, human nature is like honeycomb because we hold the treasure of reason in our bodies, just as honey is contained in the comb. This is especially true of anyone who believes in Christ, for he has the grace of the divine Spirit stored up in his soul and body like honey in wax. The Lord ate these things because He was pleased to take the salvation of each human being as His food. He did not, however, eat it all, but just a piece of a honeycomb, that is, a part of it, for not everyone believed. Nor did He take this portion Himself, but it was given Him by His disciples, for the disciples set before Him just the believers, separating them from the faithless.

11. By eating the fish and the honeycomb in front of His disciples, in this way and for these reasons, He reminded them of the words He spoke to them previously when He was approaching His passion, thus proving that He was truthful. What He had foretold was fulfilled, and He opened their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures and know that thus it behooved God's only-begotten Son to be made man for men's sake on account of the unfathomable ocean of His love, to be manifested and witnessed to by the Father's voice from above and the appearance of the divine Spirit (cf. Luke 3:22). It was fitting that He be proved worthy of trust and admiration by extraordinary acts and words, and also that He be envied and betrayed by people who did not seek God's glory but honour from men, that He should be crucified, buried and rise on the third day from the dead. Repentance and the remission of sins had to be preached in His name, beginning at Jerusalem (Luke 24:47). Those who saw Him with their own eyes and served Him were to become messengers and witnesses of these events. He proclaimed that He would send them from above the promise of His Father, the Holy Spirit, and He ordered them to stay in Jerusalem until they were endued with power from on high (Luke 24:49).

12. As He spoke in this way to His disciples of matters pertaining to salvation, He led them out of the house and as far as Bethany, and when He had blessed them, He was parted from them and carried up to heaven (Luke 24:50-51). With a radiant cloud for a chariot, He ascended in glory (cf. Acts 1:9), entered the Holy of Holies not made by hands and sat down on the right hand of the heavenly majesty, making our human substance share His own throne and divinity. As the apostles continued looking steadfastly towards heaven, they learnt authoritatively from angels that He would come again from heaven in the same way with everyone watching (Acts 1:10). The Lord Himself foretold this, and earlier Daniel had seen it. "I saw", he said, "and behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven" (Dan. 7:13). The Lord Himself said, "All the tribes of the earth shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven" (cf. Matt. 24:30).

13. The disciples worshipped the most high Lord Who had come down from heaven, made the earth into heaven and gone up again whence He came, having united things below with things above and formed one Church, at the same time heavenly and earthly, to the glory of His love for mankind. Then they returned with joy from the Mount of Olives, whence the Master had ascended, to Jerusalem and were continuously in the Temple with their minds set on heaven, praising and blessing God (Luke 24:53), and preparing themselves to receive the promised coming of the divine Spirit.

14. Briefly put, brethren, that is how those called by Christ's name should order their lives. They should persevere in prayers and supplications and, in imitation of the angels, have their eyes lifted up to the Master above the heavens, praising and blessing Him with irreproachable conduct, and waiting for His mystical coming. As the psalmist says to Him, "I will sing and will behave myself wisely in a perfect way. O when wilt thou come unto me?" (Ps. 101:2). Paul demonstrated this too by saying, "For our conversation is in heaven" (Phil. 3:20), "whither the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus" (Heb. 6:20). Peter, the chief apostle, also guides us in this direction: "Gird up the loins of your mind," he says, "be perfectly sober, and hope for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 13:8), "whom having not seen, ye love" (1 Pet. 1:8). The Lord too hinted at the same with His words, "Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning; and ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their Lord, when he will return" (Luke 12:35-36). In this way He did not destroy the sabbath but fulfilled it, showing that the day of rest from physical work for the sake of what is more excellent, is a truly blessed sabbath. It is linked with a blessing because when we are at leisure from earthly labours which are soon to cease, we wait patiently on God, seeking wat is heavenly and imperishable with unashamed hope.

15. Under the old law one day of the week was the sabbath, and the Lord seemed to the foolish Jews to destroy what they thought of as their day of rest. However, He said, "I am not come to destroy the law, but to fulfil" (Matt. 5:17). How was it that He did not do away with this sabbath but fulfilled the law regarding it? He promised to give the Holy Spirit to those who asked Him (cf. Luke 11:13) by day and by night, and commanded them to be always awake and watching, saying, "Be ye ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh" (Matt. 24:44). In this way He made all the days into blessed sabbaths for those who choose to obey Him perfectly, and so in this respect as well He did not abolish but fulfilled the law.

16.  We, by contrast, are entangled in worldly affairs, but if you abstain from acquisitiveness and mutual hatred, and strive to speak the truth and be chaste, then you too will make every day a Sabbath by being inactive in evil. When a day comes that is especially profitable for salvation, you must free yourselves even from blameless work and words, patiently stay in God’s Church, listen with understanding to the reading and teaching and contritely attend to the supplications, prayers and hymns to God. Thus you too will fulfil the Sabbath, ordering your conduct according to the Gospel of God’s grace and lifting up the eyes of your understanding towards Christ sitting above the vaults of heaven with the Father and the Spirit. He has made us sons of God, not sons of one family with God and each other in the communion of the divine Spirit, through Christ's own body and blood.

17. Let us preserve this union with one another by indossulable love. We should always look towards our Father in heaven, for we are no longer "of the earth, earthy", like "the first man", but like "the second man, the Lord from heaven" (1 Cor. 15:47). "As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy: and as is the heavenly such are they that are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly" (1 Cor. 15:48-49). As we lift up our hearts to Him we shall behold the great spectacle of our nature united for ever with the fire of the divinity. And laying aside everything to do with the coats of skins in which we were clothed because of the transgression (cf. Gen. 3:21), let us stand on holy ground through virtue and steadfast inclination towards God.

18. In this way we shall all be bold when God comes in fire, and run forward to be enlightened and once enlightened live with Him for ever, to the glory of Him who is the light above all, the threefold Sun and sovereign brightness, to whom belong all glory, might, honour and worship, now and for ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

From Saint Gregory Palamas The Homilies, Mount Thabor Publishing, pp. 170-176.