by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd
Some of you may have observed, at times, mid liturgy, where this priest is frantically experiencing the effects of A.D.D. (Attention Deficit Disorder). Its effects are downright disturbing, not just for me, but for all of us. I can be moving along in the liturgy just fine, then, as my attention is diverted by something going on in the altar (or sometimes even distracted by an unexpected thought), suddenly, when I look back into my book, I can’t find the spot where I’ve just left off… occasionally, even, when I’m looking directly at the spot where I’m supposed to be. For some strange and disconcerting reason, sometimes, what I’m looking at just doesn’t register.
In the liturgical life of the Church, the same disorder is often experienced by all of us…especially as we approach the feast of Christ’s Bodily Ascension into Heaven…and then Pentecost, a few days later. After our great celebration of Pascha, we continue trucking along, listening to the Sunday Gospels, and we suddenly lose our grip on where we’re supposed to be. You see, the Gospel Readings on particular liturgical days of the Church were never meant to be seen as merely, stand-alone, literal, historical events in the life of Christ, but rather, as patterns-of-meaning for the joyful transformation that the Lord wishes to bring about in each of us. Have you too become distracted from that pattern?
Take for example, the Readings from the Gospel of John for the last previous Sundays leading to Christ’s Ascension. As we look at the whole of them, we see a beautiful pattern emerge. In each case, (the Paralytic by the pool, the Samaritan woman at the well, and the Man Born blind at the pool of Siloam), Christ seeks out and initiates an encounter with someone in need of healing, near water. Christ, then, miraculously heals the one encountered. Immediately afterward, these laypeople who’ve been healed proclaim their encounter with Christ to unbelievers. Then Christ returns to perfect the faith of the one healed. Saint John’s Gospels point out the fact that it’s not enough to just receive a blessing or miracle from Christ, you must allow Him to change the course of your life; you have to act. The woman at the well—who later becomes Saint Photini—goes to spread the joy of her encounter with Christ to her fellow Samaritans. As both the Paralytic and Blind Man offer their Good News, they encounter unbelievers who condemn what happened…yet they faithfully continue offering their testimony about Him, in spite of the resistance.
The Church regards each of these Gospel Readings (where a healing is done near water) as having a baptismal theme. So, the Church is pointing us toward…and trying to remind each of us…of our very own healing baptisms, where it’s not enough to merely receive this blessing or miracle from Christ. Rather, we’re expected to allow it to change the course of our life; we have to act. From our birth, we’re all in need of healing and sanctification (we all need an encounter, to “join ourselves to Christ”). And His Body—the Church—restores us to new life through baptism in water. Within the sacrament of baptism, receiving this grace, we’re given the Great Commission in its Gospel Reading (Matthew 28:16-20), instructing each baptized person to proclaim Christ to all nations, making and growing disciples for Him. We’re continuously called to challenge and perfect our faith through participation in Christ, in obeying His will and carrying out His mission to the world…which is how he returns to us after our baptism…just like what happens with each of the three healed people in these Gospel Readings.
But, since Christ’s Ascension into Heaven occurs on the 40th day after Pascha…it always falls on a Thursday, when we’re completely distracted by our jobs and all of the expectations in our daily lives, and we lose our place even further, and for some strange and disconcerting reason…even if we’re looking straight at it…the meaning of it, so often, just doesn’t register for us.
On this 40th day, Jesus appears to His disciples—not merely to His Apostles, but also a larger gathering of His followers (Luke 24:33), both men and women—to whom He gave His last commandment. Christ’s disciples are instructed to be His witnesses, proclaiming God’s Kingdom and the need for repentance and forgiveness of sins everywhere, beginning from Jerusalem, where they’ll receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8). Then He leads them out of Jerusalem, to the Mount of Olives. There, He lifts up His hands and blesses them. As His Disciples are looking on, He Ascends into a cloud, out of their sight. And while everyone is standing there, looking up, two angels in white robes appear and say to them: “Why are you folks still gawking at the sky? Jesus, who’s Ascended from you into heaven, will come back in the same way as you’ve seen Him go there.” It’s as though the angel is saying, “Don’t worry, Jesus will be back later. So, stop standing around because right now, God’s got work for you to go do. Get moving!”
Therefore, as Jesus Ascends into Heaven, the scripture readings from that day, and the Gospel Readings on the Sundays leading up to it, emphasize that He expects us, who’ve had a baptismal encounter with Him, to lovingly carry-on His mission to the world. Why? Because, Christ’s Ascension is God’s assurance that, in Jesus (Who is perfect God and perfect man), humanity is now reunited with God. At His birth, Jesus takes on our human nature. Through His Ascension He glorifies this human nature by taking His physical human body to heaven and giving it a place of honor at the right hand of the Father. So, with Christ, all of human-nature also ascends. Through Christ, humanity becomes a “partaker of divine nature” (II Peter 1:4). Therefore, since we now share our human nature with He who is God, it’s through Him, that we’re restored to communion with God because Christ gives this shared humanity a permanent place of honor in heaven. Christ honors us and heals us by putting us close to the Father. And because He does this, He is equipping us to carry on His mission to the world. To lose sight of the meaning of this for each one of us is the sign of a Christian suffering from a disorder…Ascension Deficit Disorder.
Like my occasional bouts with A.D.D. in the liturgy, as Orthodox Christians, it can be pretty disconcerting for us to suddenly miss the spot where we’re supposed to be cooperating with the Holy Spirit as He offers to help us carry out His mission in ourselves and to the people around us. If we reject His workings in us, it has stressful effects on our families, who want more than anything to become whole and made courageous through your daily example of faithfulness to God. If we abdicate our spiritual ministry in the Church, it’s hurtful to other Christians around us, who feel the pain of a missing limb when we’re frequently absent from Christ’s Body, who depend upon us to fulfill the ministry we were created to offer others. And when we decline to participate with the Holy Spirit in His ministry to those in the world around us, it’s incredibly unloving-to and neglectful-of those who desperately need to encounter authentic Christianity in us.
Therefore, we mustn’t allow ourselves to be distracted from the fact that we should celebrate the Ascension with the same great joy the disciples and Apostles had when they were promised that the Holy Spirit would soon come to reveal the presence of Christ in the Church. Will you allow the Holy Spirit to reveal Christ’s presence in your heart? The feast of Ascension is joyful, not only because Christ is glorified, but also because we’re glorified with Him. We’re jubilant because He goes to “prepare a place” for us in His Father’s house and because He is forever present before the Father to intercede for us. We can experience true delight, because in His intercessions for us, He and His Father are continually sending the Holy Spirit to us to help us carry out His ministry and His mission in the world. In the most meaningful sense of the word, could there be any more truly awesome thing going on in your life?