A great and powerful king ruled over 100 beautiful cities. However, one of the cities fell into trouble: enemies came from outside and persuaded many in the city to rebel, telling them, “The king lives so far away, he doesn’t care for you anymore. Why don’t you appoint a new king among yourselves?” As the people fought with one another about who would be the new king, the enemy’s army suddenly invaded, destroying and burning the city, while making its inhabitants their slaves.
What do you think this wise, powerful, but loving king did? He left the ninety-nine safe cities and came to the rescue of the one lost city. He and his army drove out the enemies and freed the enslaved people. What was the king’s next course of action? Did he burn down the remainder of the city and kill all the people? No! Instead, he constructed even greater walls and more magnificent buildings. He made the city even greater than before!
This story is a metaphor for our human nature. It had fallen into ruin, desecrated by sin and the devil, deceived by the serpent and the twisted delights of the flesh, and had been taken captive by death and the devil. By uniting the divine nature to human nature in Christ’s incarnation, the good King Jesus declared war on the devil and sin. Through his teachings and commandments, we come to know the plot of the enemy and are trained in how to fight alongside our king. By dying on the cross, our Lord declared war on Hades, entering into it like the soldiers in the Trojan horse, plundering it of its goods. By his resurrection, he showed that all who are reborn into him have an even greater life to come after death in the body. Human nature is now restored, incorruptible. By ascending, he took our human nature and seated it upon the throne of divinity at the right hand of the Father forever.
We are like that city that was looted and vandalized, but the king has vanquished the enemy, he has rebuilt the walls and fortifications making them even greater than before, he has reconstructed all the dwellings, and now, in the center of the city, he has built a palace and has taken up residence in the city so that it can never be destroyed again.
We are not only healed of the sickness of sin, but we are also divinized by our King taking upon himself our humanity. Through this, we are invited to participate in him in a salvific process called theosis.
The Orthodox Church teaches that Jesus never left the bosom of his Father in heaven: not when he was in the manger, nor on the cross, nor in the tomb. He is everywhere present and sustaining the existence of all things. Therefore, our Lord did not ascend because he needed to get back to his Father, but rather to show his disciples (and us) that our human nature, which has been fused to his divinity in a mysterious manner, has been elevated to the highest of heaven to sit upon the right hand of the Father. Now seraphim surround him in his resurrected body, unable to look upon the glory of his throne.
BEING IN CHRIST
Other ascensions are mentioned in the Bible (Enoch and Elijah), but there are no great feast days for those. Why? Because we do not share in their ascensions. It is the same with other resurrections mentioned in the Bible – and those are numerous!
However, everything that Christ did in the flesh was done so that we might participate with him. We are invited to be like the Theotokos and bear Christ within us, we are to be baptized into him, to walk in his teachings, to embrace the cross that he has for us (our various sufferings in life), to forgive our enemies, to die with him, to resurrect with him, and to ascend into glory with him.
So, you may be thinking, “That sounds quite lofty. How does that look for a simple person like me?”
Attaining to sonship in Christ and sharing in his divinity is no secret matter. It is quite simple, yet so difficult for us who are attached to this world. We must turn away from sin and turn to Christ. How does that look on a daily basis? We keep our prayer rule; we read a little bit from the fathers and scripture; when sinful thoughts come, we immediately drive them away; when we find that we’ve dwelt on them, then we ask for forgiveness; when we suffer, we ask God to give us the strength we need; when we encounter hardship, we try our best to remember that all is sent our way for our spiritual healing and salvation, no matter how difficult it is. Weekly, we prepare ourselves for the reception of our Lord’s body and blood, and we partake of it as our spiritual fathers have directed us.
No matter how messed up we are inside, we must remember that God looks at us and says, “I can work with that.” So we fall and we get back up again, ever reaching toward the ascension before us, realizing it is a gift of grace that is working in synergy with our efforts to elevate us.
End Notes: The ascension icon above comes from a 13th century Byzantine manuscript.