Be Thou exalted above the heavens, O God, and Thy glory above all the earth.
(Ps. 56:6, 12).
There were two things that the disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ could not understand, namely: that He had to suffer for the salvation of the world, and that in forty days after the Resurrection He would ascend to Heaven.
And even if against their expectations Jesus Christ was crucified by the Jews’ fury, the disciples considered that after His Resurrection their Good Teacher and Instructor would not leave them orphans, but would again be with them for a time, teaching the people, healing and working miracles. They wanted Him to go with all of them to Galilee, again catch fish in the sea of Tiberius, again see Capernaum, Mt. Tabor, and Nazareth. They wanted Him to again rest by Jacob’s well in Samaria, again walk along the road of Jordan and the streets of Jericho. To stop for a rest in Bethany. They wanted that He would again work wonders in the Temple of Solomon, just like He did before.
That is how they thought, because they did not know clearly why Christ came into the world, where He came from and where He had to go again. They knew neither the mystery of the Lord’s incarnation, nor the significance of His suffering, nor the importance of His Resurrection from the dead—although the Savior often talked with them about this mystery.
A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father (Jn. 16:16).
Another time he said to them, I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again, I leave the world, and go to the Father (Jn. 16:28).
And in the hour when He had to ascend to Heaven, He said even more clearly, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God (Jn. 20:17).
Thus, so that we would also not be overcome by doubt, I will tell you first of all why Christ came into the world.
Our Savior came into the world, having been sent by the Father, in order to save the world fallen into all kinds of sins, as He Himself said, I came not to judge the world, but to save the world (Jn. 12:47).
He came into the world to redeem man who had become a slave to satan and gehenna through Adam’s fall into sin. He came to make peace between man and God and heaven, between what is mortal and what is eternal. The Son of God became Man so that man might become God. He borrowed from man what He did not have in order to give him what he had lost. He took on a human body in order to give man a divine body in exchange. God humbled Himself in order to heal man’s pride. For this, Jesus Christ came into the world.
But when the Lord came to man He did not find him where He had left him—working the fields, in his family circle, near Eden, but found him sullying others like himself, worshipping idols, sunken into the most serious sins. Man had fallen to an animal state, as David himself said: He is compared to the mindless cattle, and is become like unto them (Ps. 48:13).
That is where God found man, and that is why he was born in a manger made for animals. Man had become a slave to the devil, imprisoned in the dungeon of all his sins, as again the prophet says, Bring my soul out of prison, that I may confess Thy name (Ps. 141:8).
He had even become an inhabitant of hell; for until the coming of the Savior not one soul was saved, but all remained in the darkness of hell, from Adam to John the Baptist. And no one could pull man out of that place except the Son of God. David reminds us of this, saying, Thou hast brought up my soul out of hades (Ps. 29:4). But the patriarch Jacob said, “Do not bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave” (Gen. 42:38). This is to what man had fallen, and from whence Jesus Christ had to bring him out.
Nevertheless it was not enough for this humble divine incarnation alone to raise man from the nethermost parts of the earth. No, neither divine miracles, nor the Lord’s teaching were enough to save the world. Needed were suffering, the Cross, and blood in order to cleanse away Adam’s sin.
Therefore, inasmuch as Jesus Christ “loves us to the end” (cf., Jn. 13:1), He desired also to suffer for us. He gave Himself to man freely in order to save him freely. The priceless One was sold for a price. They struck Him on the face, placed a Cross upon His shoulders, hung Him between two thieves of the earth, and He suffered, died, and rose again. He endured everything, gave away everything He Had that was precious—His life, His Body, and His Blood, and even his poor garments—in order to receive all that is most precious on earth: man’s soul. He did it all in order to receive everyone and everything.
And when the cup of redemption was full, Christ cried out on the Cross, It is finished (Jn. 19:30)! Thus was the son of man redeemed by the Son of God.
After His glorious Resurrection, He no longer showed Himself to the world, only to His disciples, His closest ones. He appeared to them several times over the course of forty days in His deified body, consoling them, then teaching and explaining to them the mystery of redemption. And when the disciples were gathered in Jerusalem, He appeared to them for the last time as the Lord, saying, “Peace be unto you.” Having comforted them, for they were afraid, and having eaten “broiled fish and a honeycomb” (cf. Lk. 24:42) in front of them, He led them up to the Mount of Olives, which is near to Jerusalem, and instructed them to remain in Jerusalem until they had been endued with power from on high, then He lifted up his hands, and blessed them (Lk. 24:49–50). In that moment He ascended to the heavens, caught up by a bright cloud (cf. Acts 1:9).
He was born on a mount, transfigured on a mount, crucified on a mount, and from a mount did He ascend to heaven. Why did Christ love mountains so much? Because a mountain is a symbol of heaven, the Church, and paradise, while a valley is a symbol of the world, sickness, and this tumultuous life. That is why the Lord often prayed on the mount, but preached in the plains and valleys.
The cloud that caught Him up also has a mystical meaning. A cloud is the border between the spirit and matter, between heaven and earth, between the limits and the limitless, between man and God. It divides the heavenly firmaments. A cloud is the border between vision and faith. Therefore it is present in all the great mysteries and symbolizes the depth of the mysteries that cannot be comprehended by the human mind.
Thus did the Lord ascend to heaven. But below, on earth, eleven Galilean fishermen remained, gazing up at Him pitifully. How hard it is to part! Perhaps this is why tears where created, so that they alone would silently express the grief of separating hearts! Could the zealous Peter not shed tears? Or Simon the Zealot? Or John, the beloved of Christ—how could he overcome his sadness now?
While the cloud was hiding their priceless treasure from their eyes, eleven disciples gazed at the heavens in contemplation. They, the hundred-year-old olive trees, the rocks, and everything around Jerusalem and the ancient temple were swallowed by silence, perplexity, and sadness.
In that difficult moment of separation came two bright angels in order to encourage the disciples of the Lord, saying, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? Take heart, strengthen your hearts. You are fishers of men. In your hearts is written the Gospels of Christ. Upon your shoulders hangs His Cross. His Church will be built by your hands. By your tongues will the new law be preached. Do not stand here any longer gazing up into heaven like that. Go to Jerusalem. In just a few days power from on high will strengthen you. Then with your legs walk around all the countries of the earth, telling everyone what you have seen with your own eyes and heard with your own ears. After all, this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven (Acts 1:11).
But Holy Scripture sometimes talks about heaven, while another time it talks about the heavens, and yet another about the heavens of heaven. So, to which of these heavens did the Lord ascend?
The Psalmist says clearly, The heaven of heaven belongeth to the Lord, but the earth He gave unto the sons of men (Ps. 113:24). However the holy fathers teach us that there are three names that are different from one another, namely: heaven—the space of the whole universe, where all the heavenly stars are; then higher than that are the heavens, nine in number, according to the number of the angelic ranks that make them up, beginning with the heaven of the angels and ending with the heaven of the seraphim; and over these heavens is the heaven of heavens, the most holy sanctuary, where stands the Throne of the Most Holy Trinity. This means that Jesus Christ remained not in heaven and not in the heavens, but in the heavens of heaven, where He is seated on the right hand of the Father.
The holy fathers teach us that our Lord Jesus Christ did not ascend to the heavens just like that, without glory, but that even while still on earth He was surrounded by a multitude of angels, glorifying Him with unspeakable triumphant hymns. And after they had passed through the heavenly firmament these angels of light came to the gates of the first of the nine heavens, and overflowing with great joy, cried out together with David:
“Open, O angels, the eternal gates, and the King of Glory shall enter!”
“Who is this King of Glory?” replied the angels.
“The Angel of Great Counsel—He is the King of Glory.”
And opening the gates of heaven, the angels were amazed, and said:
“But why are His garments red?”
“Because He is coming from Bosor (that is, the earth). That is why His garments are red. For He endured death on the Cross in order to save the world.”
Then all the angels, bowing down to Him, sang to Him divine songs of victory for the course of one day. Then all the angels, conducting Him to the gates of the second heaven, again cried out to Him:
“Open, O principalities, your bright gates, and the King of Glory shall enter.”
“Who is this King of Glory?” the latter cried out.
“The Lord mighty and strong the Lord strong in battle, Who has conquered the world, bound satan, and endured wounds for man’s sake. He is the King of heavenly glory.”
And again the gates were opened and the numberless hosts of principalities and angels met Him with unceasing hymns of glorification.
After yet another day of angelic celebration the Savior rose yet higher, to the heaven of archangels, accompanied by all the lower angels who again exclaimed:
“Open you archangels the heavenly gates, and the Creator and Strategist of angels, the Son of the Virgin from Nazareth, the brightness of the Father shall enter in.”
And again he spent one day there. Then He rose higher, to the heaven of powers, dominions, thrones, cherubim, and seraphim, before which the lower angels exclaimed:
“Open the heavenly gates, and the Lord of hosts, the Lord of lights, the Lord of the heavens, the Lord of Sabaoth shall enter.”
And the angelic powers surrounded Him with these hymns:
“Hosanna in the highest…”
And thus were all the nine heavens filled with unspeakable glory and joy of the Ascension of the Lord, Who spent a day with each of the angelic ranks, and on the ninth day bowed down before the Father and seated Himself at the right hand of His power. On the tenth day after the Ascension the Father sent to earth in place of His Son the Holy Spirit to enlighten the whole world.
No one who wears a human body but Christ has ever risen higher than the heavens. Paul was taken up into the “third heaven”—to paradise—and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter (2 Cor. 12:2, 4). They say that Moses rose to the seventh heaven, where he received the law by the disposition of angels (Acts 7:53). Enoch and Elias were caught up into heaven as they were, with their bodies, but no human body could ever see the glory of the Divinity except the Body of Christ, Who ascended into heaven with the same body that suffered, bearing the marks of the nail, the spear, and the thorns.
Thus does it behoove us now also, brothers, to celebrate along with all the heavenly angels, rejoice and glorify the Lord Who loves mankind.
Today the act of peace between man and God has been completed. Today man is deified, heaven rejoices, the heavens dance, the angels leap with joy, and the demons, filled with shame, are bound with chains. Today all the earth is arrayed in festive garments, for it has been united with heaven. Today Adam’s body sits at the right hand of God.
O the unspeakable wonder of Christ’s Ascension! Such a great mercy of God! Man lost paradise, but acquired the Kingdom of Heaven. He lost the garden guarded by cherubim, but in return acquired the glory of the Jerusalem on high. In the garden were fruit trees, flowers and springs, but here is the Throne of the Most Holy Trinity, angelic singing and unspeakable glory. There was the singing of birds, here the singing of cherubim. There was the fresh breeze, here is the gentle wind of the Comforting Spirit. There is a place of labor, here eternal rest. There is the sun’s light, here is the glory of the Most Holy Trinity.
O most glorious wonder of Christ’s Ascension! The body of man was seen by angels, ascended higher than the seraphim, and sat at the right hand of the Father. What depths there are under man’s feet and what heights there are above him! From hell, straight to heaven. From darkness to higher than the sun. From the horrid dungeon to the place of eternal rest!
Today the demons are lamenting, today emptied hell groans. Today the fishers of men rejoice as they weep. Today Christians keep festival. Today the angels hymn unceasingly. Today the Lord is forever enthroned. He is enthroned, for He has redeemed man. He is enthroned, for He has put on the former majesty. He is enthroned, for He has been seated at the right hand of the Father. He has put aside the linen human garments and clothed Himself in gleaming fiery vestments. He has left the mantle of scorn below and received brilliant porphyry on high. He has left the poor grounds of Galilee and become the King of Heaven. Today Christ has ascended to heaven.
Now Pilate is left with the mantle, the high priests with the pieces of silver in their hands, the scribes with the tablets of the law, the Pharisees with their hatred, and the people with their unbelief. Tell us, Pilate, what is the truth? Tell us high priests, who blasphemed—Christ, or you? Tells us you people, where is Barabbas whom you demanded? Today you were deceived. Today Truth is sprung up out of the earth, and righteousness hath looked down from heaven (Ps 84:12). Today Mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other (Ps. 84:11). Heaven and earth have made peace.
Rejoice today, O mortals. Rejoice O man, and celebrate from the heart, O Christian. Lament not O Adam. Be glad O apostles. Rejoice, O Mother Ever-Virgin, for thy Son is clothed in majesty and has covered Adam’s nakedness with the light of His glory!
And if we nevertheless feel that we are bereft and strangers on earth, let us run as often as possible to the Holy Church. Here we will see Tabor and Jericho, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, Golgotha and the Mount of Olives. Here we will once again meet with Jesus. Here heaven is united with earth. Here man always makes peace with God. No one who comes to church feels bereft on earth.
If we are compassed about by sickness and misfortunes, sorrows and pain, this is a sign that we have abandoned God, and departed far from Jerusalem. Let us return again to Jerusalem, as He commanded us (cf. Lk. 24:49). Let us again make peace with the Lord; let us come to church. After all, we cannot live without Him. We are after all the Lord’s, and only He takes pity on us.
In the church we can unite with Christ by two paths: either by bringing the Lord into our hearts through prayer, love, and acts of mercy; or ourselves rise to the Lord through profound humility, for he who humbleth himself shall be exalted (Matt. 23:12). Let each come as he is able. Let us try one path or the other, or both at once, but let us not be lazy, and keep trying until our souls are united with the Savior.
I you want to more perfectly unite with Him—let us lift up our hearts. Lift them up on high, where we shall find our fathers, our heroes, our saints. Where are the angels, martyrs, monastic saints, where there is the glory of Christ, there will our hearts be.
If we do this, we will acquire in our souls what our bodies have been vouchsafed today—eternal rest. Then and only then will we be satisfied—when the light of Christ’s glory appears to us (cf. Ps. 16:15).1