In this guest post by Fr. Jeffrey Stephaniuk, we are challenged to understand the true purpose of our lives and our freedom. At the same time we are reminded by the Ascension our true value–something C.S. Lewis referred to as the “weight of glory”. If we really understood the glorious destiny Christ has in mind for each and every one of usit would change everything–from how we view ourselves and others to our appreciation for the Salvation we offered through Christ and His Church. Our only response would be a the desire to “…commend ourselves, each other and our whole life to Christ our God” with love and thanksgiving.
I remember how helpful it was for me in my faith to hear a line about Ascension Thursday: Jesus was returning to heaven, and he was taking with him something that was not there before, namely his humanity. “A human nature like ours is now in heaven,” wrote Venerable Fulton Sheen. “He brought back something that he did not have when he came to this earth… He took back the human nature.”
We have several prayers for the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ that proclaim this same theology: During the hymn to the Mother of God for the feast day we have this prayer: “O my soul, magnify the Lord who in glory ascended bodily into the heavens.” There is a line from Vespers describing the surprise in heaven: “… the angels are bewildered to see that a man is more exalted than themselves.” At Matins there is this prayer, repeated several times: “We glorify you, O life-giving Christ, and we sing of the divine ascension into heaven of your most pure body.”
Any time there is a reference to an angel of God, “an angel of peace, a faithful guide, a guardian of our souls and bodies,” as we pray in the Divine Liturgy, you know they have made a free will decision to side with God. The context for angels siding with God or rebelling against God is over the place of human beings in the created world, summed up in a psalm, “What is man that thou art mindful of him?”
From the Book of Revelation, we learn that the jealousy of other angels towards God for his plan regarding human beings led to a disaster. “And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angelsfought against the dragon…and there was no longer any place for them in heaven… The great dragon was thrown down… the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” That dark use of freedom and St. Michael’s loyal defence of God and of human beings occurred long, long before any of us were ever born, and before the time of Adam and Eve’s own fall due to “that ancient serpent.”
By contrast, God, who is Spirit, enters the physical world, comes “down to the earth” through the dignity of becoming a human being: conceived, nurtured in his growth during his pre-natal time of development, then born of his mother, Mary; participating in that experience of the highest achievement of human civilization, a mother with child. G.K. Chesterton writes about Christmas that God “is born like an ordinary baby and entirely dependent on a mother” in that great life-giving nourishment of relationship. He adds that the Church “proclaims peace on earth and never forgets why there was war in heaven”: a chasmic dispute over the value of the human being. It’s no wonder, then, that we address her in this manner: “Rejoice, O Wonder, ever-thrilling to the angels; Rejoice, O Wound, ever-hurting to the demons!”
Jesus faces “the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” and through three temptations exercises his human free will in a manner that places him in the same camp as St. Michael and with the “thousands of archangels, and tens of thousands of angels” who stand before God, as we pray during the Divine Liturgy. Chesterton writes that if it had been otherwise, no Caesar or tyrant or tsar in politics at any time in the history of the world would be a match for the brutality that would have been unleashed. And following St. Paul in that we preach Christ crucified, the culmination of that human free will on the cross provides a definitive answer to those temptations. As stated in one prayer, “By your pure cross, O Christ, you have shamed the devil.”
It is on this point of the use of freedom that our defence of innocent human life and even a defence of an objectively definable human nature suffers because of this ideological insistence: that freedom is only exercised if we choose destruction, as in the manner of the one against whom St. Michael fought, rather than follow the model of Jesus. The French existentialists like Jean Paul Sartre led the way in the concept of autonomy in which freedom is only truly freedom if one chooses the negative and not the positive, or in Sartre’s phrase, “free for Evil, but not for Good; for Error, but not Truth.”
It is common sense to say that to build and build up is healthy, and to destroy is harmful. For example, I remember, starting in 2014, reading internet posts by Ukrainian soldiers who participated in the destruction of war. These were predominantly civilians who stopped the Russian invasion. When possible, they would write about fighting and being surprised by an overwhelming compulsion: the desire to go back home and fix the fence they’d been neglecting; or improve the orchard in their backyard. And when asked what counsellor would help them the most as they returned to civilian life, one interviewee responded, “my wife.” The marital embrace, in its ability to keep a person grounded, in its healing power, and the thought of bringing children into this world; for the veteran’s healing and also as a contribution to building up one’s world rather than destroying it. (And about this last comment, being the son of a veteran of the Second World War, it made me realize my connection to my own father’s return to civilian life.)
Dear Faithful, continue to be faithful. During the Second World War, Pope Pius XII called the Church “the guardian of man’s true dignity and liberty.” Sometimes, I think eternity is difficult or even next to impossible to understand; but the concept of rejecting God for all eternity is enough to bring a grown man to tears. “The great dragon was thrown down…” as St. John the Evangelist writes in Revelation, but we have been brought up to heaven, as we pray: “Lord Christ! You dignified fallen human nature through birth from the Virgin’s womb, uniting yourself to it completely…” And from a hymn for Ascension, a theme of reconciling earth and heaven in Christ, the physical and the spiritual, the temporal and the eternal, the human and the divine, similar to a popular Christmas carol about “heaven and earth”: “O earth, be reconciled with heaven; bow humbly to your Saviour and the heavenly God.”
In Christ who Gloriously Ascended!
Fr. Jeffrey Stephaniuk