Pastoral Letters

Pastoral Message June 9, 2024

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Christ is Risen!

Truly He is Risen!

This will be the last time I address you in my weekly message with the Christian, Clarion Call that Christ as indeed, risen from the dead. As the weeks of Pascha have continued to speedily press on, this coming Thursday, August 13th will be the 40th Day following our Lord’s divine and life-giving Resurrection. In other words, this coming Thursday, we will commemorate the Feast of our Lord’s Ascension.  Please, allow me to share what Fr. Thomas Hopko wrote in the first volume of his series on Orthodox teachings. This, from his study of the Nicene Creed in Book I, Orthodox Spirituality:

After His resurrection from the dead Jesus appeared to men for a period of forty days after which He “was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God”.

Mk 16.19; see also Lk 24.50 and Acts 1.9–11

The ascension of Jesus Christ is the final act of His earthly mission of salvation. The Son of God comes “down from heaven” to do the work which the Father gives Him to do; and having accomplished all things, He returns to the Father bearing for all eternity the wounded and glorified humanity which He has assumed (see e.g. Jn 17).

The doctrinal meaning of the ascension is the glorification of human nature, the reunion of man with God. It is indeed, the very penetration of man into the inexhaustible depths of divinity.

We have seen already that “the heavens” is the symbolical expression in the Bible for the uncreated, immaterial, divine “realm of God” as one saint of the Church has called it. To say that Jesus is “exalted at the right hand of God” as Saint Peter preached in the first Christian sermon (Acts 2.33) means exactly this: that man has been restored to communion with God, to a union which is, according to Orthodox doctrine, far greater and more perfect than that given to man in his original creation (see Eph 1–2).

Man was created with the potential to be a “partaker of the divine nature,” to refer to the Apostle Peter once more (2 Pet 1.4). It is this participation in divinity, called theosis (which literally means deification or divinization) in Orthodox theology, that the ascension of Christ has fulfilled for humanity. The symbolical expression of the “sitting at the right hand” of God means nothing other than this. It does not mean that somewhere in the created universe the physical Jesus is sitting in a material throne.

The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of Christ’s ascension in terms of the Jerusalem Temple. Just as the high priests of Israel entered the “holy of holies” to offer sacrifice to God on behalf of themselves and the people, so Christ the one, eternal and perfect High Priest offers Himself on the cross to God as the one eternal, and perfect, Sacrifice, not for Himself but for all sinful men. As a man, Christ enters (once and for all) into the one eternal and perfect Holy of Holies: the very “Presence of God in the heavens.”

. . . we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God . . . (Heb 4.14)

For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens. . . . He has no need like those high priests to offer sacrifice daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did this once and for all when he offered up himself.

Now, the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tabernacle which is set up not by man but by the Lord (Heb 7.26; 8.2).

For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf (Heb 9.24).

. . . when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, then to wait until his enemies should be made a stool for his feet (Heb 10.12–13; Ps 110.1).

Thus, the ascension of Christ is seen as man’s first entry into that divine glorification for which He was originally created. The entry is made possible by the exaltation of the divine Son who emptied Himself in human flesh in perfect self-offering to God.

Please, my beloved brothers and sisters, gaze more fervently, with a greater focus, and with a heightened sense of spiritual appreciation, upon the large icon of the Ascension on the northern ceiling panel of the St. Anna Altar. Place yourselves with the Disciples, in wonderment, confusion, a return to sadness and a feeling of repeated abandonment. Place yourself with the Theotokos, seeing her precious Son rising into the clouds, and taking his rightful place, enthroned once again at the right hand of the Father. Place yourself with the Angels, heralding, proclaiming, escorting and witnessing, during this dazzling spectacle.  And indeed, see yourself in Christ Jesus. Because to be sure, He rose into the heavens, to demonstrate that we are no longer tethered to the ground and destined for a grave. We were created to dwell with Him forever, inheritors of the Kingdom, children of the Father, members of His Body.

Please join us in prayer on Thursday, June 13th. Orthros is at 9:00 am followed by the Divine Liturgy at 10:00 am.

And then, just as quickly, ten days later, our attention will be called toward the south ceiling of the Altar – to the Feast of Pentecost. 

With Much Love in our Lord Who is Ascend on the 40th Day,

Fr. Anthony Savas