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June 15, 2024

The Ascension of Christ (St. Chrysostomos of Smyrna)

The Ascension of Christ

By St. Chrysostomos, Metropolitan of Smyrna

"Then He led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up His hands, He blessed them. While He was blessing them, He withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven" (Luke 24:50-51).

The great and high mystery, which is hidden on the Fortieth day of Pascha, Thursday, in celebrating the festival of the Lord's Ascension to the heavens as a great and glorious day, is enclosed in the few but profound meanings and high teachings included in these final words, with which the Evangelist Luke closes his sacred Gospel: "Then he led them out as far as Bethany" etc.

According to these words, the last act on earth of our God-man Redeemer was to collect His disciples from Jerusalem, bring them out far from the Christ-killing city of Jerusalem, to lead them to the grace-filled Mount of Olives, and there, where the immaculate feet of the Most High touched the earth, He extended and stretched forth His hands to the length and height of the Apostles and gave them His great despotic blessing.

While He was blessing them, in which seemingly endless streams of His great and inexhaustible blessing continued to flow from the outstretched hands of Jesus on the Apostles, Jesus was gradually and little by little separated from the earth, and separated from His disciples, and rising above their heads, He was brought to heaven, and being taken up He ceased to be visible to the ecstatic and young Apostles, as if from the immeasurable height to which He ascended. But the Apostles continued to look upwards, and they heard angels who appeared say to them: "Men of Galilee, why are you standing gazing into heaven?"

The Apostles could not be distracted from that wonderful sight; they looked with bated breath, with unrestrained anxiousness and wonder, to heaven, where their precious and unique treasure, Christ, who had been among them in the cave and in the manger of Bethlehem, who was recognized as such and confessed both above by the voice of the Father and below by the Forerunner and Prophet John in the Jordan, who scattered and poured out His wonderful works and preaching throughout Judea, Samaria and the Galilee of the Gentiles, who was arrested through the betrayal of Judas by lawless hands in the Garden of Gethsemane, who was brought to and tortured on the Cross on the peak of Mount Golgotha, who was then taken down by the pure and venerable hands of Joseph and Nicodemos and hid in a tomb behind the stone in the garden of Joseph of Arimathea, who rose from the dead after three days according to the will of God, and finally ascended in glory and entered into the treasury of heaven, where He sat at the right hand of the throne of the Father's majesty, "from whence He came."

The great mystery hidden behind this great celebration of the glorious Ascension of Jesus is that the great work of the salvation of men has been fully accomplished, that the things on earth have been united to the heavenly, that He is the one who descends and the one who ascends, that the bearer on earth of the kingdom of God is Christ, He remains forever, because the bearer of this kingdom, over the course of forty days after the Resurrection, He continued to appear to the Apostles, speaking about His kingdom and empowering them with that great promise and pledge: "And lo, I am with you always, even until the end of the age." Finally as a final blessing to the Apostles He gave this: "He led them out as far as Bethany," and there on the mount called Olives gave them the last words of counsel, and told them not to depart from Jerusalem, until they are clothed with power from on high, and receive the illumination of the Holy Spirit, and then to go forth and make disciples of all the nations, and thus continue and complete and consummate, and with them their successors, the work of the salvation of men, for which He sacrificed Himself, and finally through these hands He blessed them, and while blessing them He ascended from them in glory.

And in order for us to understand this great mystery well, let us raise our minds, so that mentally we too can see the beauty of this spectacle of the Ascension of the Lord, which even the Angels see with such admiration with what the Apostles saw.

In the Gospel of the Ascension, which is steadfastly read on the day of the feast, it has a story narrated before the Lord's Ascension, in which is recounted one of those unexpected and sudden appearances of Jesus to His disciples. According to this narrative, Jesus did not appear to His disciples in the place from where He was to be ascended, on the Mount of Olives, but He appeared to them in the middle of Jerusalem; He appeared to them in the middle of the self-condemned and Christ-killing city, and from there He collected them and marching at their head, He hastened with them through the principal streets of the city, led them and brought them onto the great road, which brought them from Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives, and led them out through its gates. And all this movement takes place and becomes the last physical manifestation and presence of Jesus to His disciples on the fortieth day, whence He would be taken up into heaven, so that the idle city would finally wake up from its stupor, and receive knowledge of this last at least visit of her Redeemer.

Christ appears in Jerusalem, passes with His disciples through the streets, alleys and streams of the city, exits from her gates officially and solemnly, and enters with a steady step through the gates to Bethany and to the great tree-lined path of the Mount of Olives. Why? That the unfaithful city, which killed the prophets and stoned those that were sent to her, the city which sunk to the great crime of deicide, that they may see the King of Israel visit her for the last time and recognize Him and be saved!

But Jerusalem remained unconscious even during this last visit! Jerusalem saw her Risen King then, but in her unbelief and greed she did not believe in Him again, or she did not see Him at all, she did not sense Him even at His last visitation, while many humble believers over so many times saw Him and believed in Him and were saved?

Be that as it may or otherwise, what bitter blindness for Jerusalem, what cruel fate for the glorious city of Jerusalem! Christ appears for the last time in the middle of the city, not as a Judge, but as a Savior, ready to hear and accept her repentance, for the crime she recently plunged into, ready to hear and accept her repentance and grant mercy and for this He passed through all her streets; but her rulers, in their arrogance and the pride of their hearts, did not sense the visit, or rather rejected even this greatest condescension and free of charge, and thus the beautiful city, the glorious Jerusalem, the seat of the Prophets, the seat of the reigning King, is now left desolate, because Jesus Christ has gone out and is now removed from it. And after a while she was demolished in her entirety, and nothing remained, not a stone upon a stone was there, but she was in magnificent ruins, and this became like dust, when the wind blows from the face of the earth, and everything disappeared as a sign of unbelief and for her punishment and for the punishment and example of the apostate and corrupt nations!

Brethren, let us also be afraid of this unbelief and corruption of the Jerusalemites! Just as the old Israel was cast out because of their unbelief as incorrigible and stubborn and uncircumcised in heart, let us fear that we too will suffer the same: the new Israel, we the chosen people, the Orthodox Greek people.

How many times does Jesus pass before us, as before with the Jerusalemites, without attracting our attention, without bending our hard hearts to repentance? When, for example, in the church we listen to the Gospel readings, then does not Christ also pass before us? When the word of God is preached in a gathering of believers, doesn't this voice of the Word speak to us? When, during the offering of the holy gifts, the priest shouts: "With the fear of God, faith and love, draw near," and the God-man Savior now passes in front of us sensibly and physically, and we remain indifferent to the visit of divine grace, do we not then also resemble those insensitive and doomed Jerusalemites, in front of whom Jesus passed, without attracting their attention, and for this reason He left the houses of those people desolate?

This is the reason why, on this last day of His physical presence on earth, Jesus did not appear to His disciples directly on the spot, which was chosen for His Ascension, as at other times to certify His Resurrection He appeared in the Upper Room, where the disciples were gathered, or in Emmaus, or on this mountain of Galilee, or on the shores of the sea of Tiberias, but He appears in Jerusalem, and from there collects them and leads them outside its walls as far as Bethany, so that by this it may be clearly seen that divine grace is now exiting and moving away from Jerusalem, who through her unbelief and insensitivity prepared for herself for this abandonment, which was followed by her condemnation and destruction.

Coming out of Jerusalem, He receives a few, but chosen, stones, His Apostles, so that from them He can build the new living city of His heavenly kingdom on earth, and He brings these chosen stones under Him from the old and condemned city into the free, pure and high place, to the grace-filled Mount of Olives, that He may sanctify and bless the foundation stones of the new structure, in order to use them as vessels of the new grace, having been purified and emerged from the flame of Pentecost, in order to build the Church, which the gates of Hades will not prevail against: "Then He led them out as far as Bethany."

From there begins the great work of the blessing of the disciples: "Lifting up His hands, He blessed them. While He was blessing them, He withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven."

Source: Sacred Polycarp, Year 2 Smyrna, no. 57; May 5, 1912, pp. 917-922. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

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