The Feast of the Ascension of the Lord
THE JOURNEY TO PENTECOST
The Ascension of Christ: What is the Ascension and What is Heaven?
Fr Alexander Schmemann
“The feast of the Ascension is the celebration of heaven now opened to human beings, heaven as the new and eternal home, heaven as our true homeland. Sin severed earth from heaven and made us earthly and coarse, it fixed our gaze solidly on the ground and made our life exclusively earthbound. Sin is the betrayal of heaven in the soul. It is precisely on this day, on the feast of the Ascension, that we cannot fail to be horrified by this renunciation that fills the whole world. With self-importance and pride, man announces that he is strictly material, that the whole world is material, and that there is nothing beyond the material. And for some reason he is even glad about this, and speaks with pity and condescension, as he would of buffoons and boors, of those who still believe in some sort of “heaven.” Come on brothers, heaven is the sky, it’s just as material as everything else; there is nothing else, there never was and never will be. We die, we disappear; so in the meantime, let’s build an earthly paradise and forget about the fantasies of priests. This in brief, but absolutely accurately, is the end result and high-point of our culture, our science, our ideology. Progress ends in the cemetery, with the progress of worms feeding on corpses. But what do you propose, they ask us, what is this heaven you talk about, into which Christ ascended? After all, up in the sky nothing of what you are speaking exists.
“Let the answer to this question come from John Chrysostom, a Christian preacher who lived sixteen centuries ago. Speaking about heaven, he exclaims: “What need do I have for heaven, when I myself will become heaven…” Let the answer come from our ancestors, who called the church “heaven on earth.” The essential point of both these answers is this: heaven is the name of our authentic vocation as human beings, heaven is the final truth about the earth. No, heaven is not somewhere in outer space beyond the planets, or in some unknown galaxy. Heaven is what Christ gives back to us, what we lost through our sin and pride, through our earthly, exclusively earthly sciences and ideologies, and now it is opened, offered, and returned to us by Christ. Heaven is the kingdom of eternal life, the kingdom of truth, goodness and beauty. Heaven is the total spiritual transformation of human life; heaven is the kingdom of God, victory over death, the triumph of love and care; heaven is the fulfillment of that ultimate desire, about which it was said: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). All of this is revealed to us, all of this is given to us by Christ. And therefore, heaven permeates our life here and now, the earth itself becomes a reflection, a mirror image of heavenly beauty. Who descended from heaven to earth to return heaven to us? God. Who ascended from earth to heaven? The man Jesus.
“St. Athanasius the Great says that, “God became man so that man could become God.” God came down to earth so that we might ascend to heaven! This is what the Ascension celebrates! This is the source of its brightness and unspeakable joy. If Christ is in heaven, if we believe in him and love him, then we also are there with him, at his banquet, in his Kingdom. If humanity ascends through him, and does not fall, then through him I also have access to ascension and am called to him. And in him, the goal, meaning and ultimate joy of my life is revealed to me. Everything, everything around us pulls us down. But I look at the divine flesh ascending to heaven, at Christ going up, “with the sound of a trumpet,” and I say to myself and to the world: here is the truth about the world and humanity, here is the life to which God calls us from all eternity.”