Daily Meditations

Sixth Thursday after Pascha, Holy Ascension

The Ascension and the Glorification of Man (Part I), by Father Lawrence Farley

In contemporary Orthodoxy, we are accustomed to referring to Christ as one of the Holy Trinity. He is usually referred to as “Christ our true God”, and the Gospel of John, which stresses His divine status, is, I would suggest, our favourite of the four Gospels. When announcing the reading from (say) Matthew’s Gospel, the deacon says, “Bless master him who proclaims the good tidings of the holy apostle and evangelist Matthew”, but when he announces a reading from John’s Gospel, he says, “Bless master him who proclaims the good tidings of the holy apostle and evangelist John the Theologian”. The other evangelists are honoured, but only John receives the title “the Theologian” (an epithet shared only by St. Gregory Nazianzus and St. Simeon, sometimes called “the New Theologian”). Like I said: John is our favourite.

Looking at church history, one can see why. Starting early on and heating up dramatically in the fourth century, the Church was swamped with rival and alternative views of who Jesus of Nazareth was. Arius made headlines in the fourth century by suggesting that Jesus was a creature, like all the other creatures made by God, only perhaps a bit more exalted, like an angel on steroids (my description not his). For Arius, Jesus was only divine in an honorary sense, like a citizen being made “King for a day”. In dealing with the distortions of Arius, the Church turned with gratitude to the emphatic clarity of John’s Gospel. That Gospel opens with a ringing assertion of Christ’s divinity (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”), and climaxes with a confession of the same (as Thomas falls down before Jesus, crying out, “My Lord and my God!”) From the fourth century on, the primacy of John’s Gospel was assured. Faced with the swarming multitude of heresies, the Church would continue to declare the divinity of its Saviour, and refer to Him almost reflexively as “Christ our true God”.

This is good. But it should not allow us to miss the significance of Him being “Christ the true man” as well. Orthodox theology, formed by its response to the challenges and heresies it faced, takes a theological approach to Jesus: we think of Him primarily as the pre-eternal and divine Word who later became a man for our sake. But the earliest disciples did not begin that way. They began with a phenomenological approach to Him. That is, they first knew Him as a man like them, truly and completely human, and (what’s more) authentically Jewish. For like His first disciples, Jesus referred to the God of Israel as His God (compare His cry from the cross in Mk. 15:34 and His post-resurrection reference to His God in Jn. 20:17). He prayed to God as all His fellow Jews did, and taught that the Law’s greatest commandment was to love the God of Israel (Mk. 12:29-30). They went to on discover and proclaim that this Man was also divine.

We do well to remember this, because often we tend to secretly embrace a kind of crypto-docetism. (“Docetism” is the name given to the view that Jesus was not truly human, but that He only seemed—Greek dokeō—to be so.) We Orthodox Christians today easily remember that Jesus is divine. We remember less easily that He is also completely human. It is as if Christ assumed our humanity at Bethlehem, and then left it behind like a used suit of clothes at His Ascension. It is not so: the humanity which He assumed for our sake at His Nativity, He keeps forever.

It is especially important to remember this at the Feast of the Ascension, for the Ascension is not only the triumph of God, but even more the triumph of Man. We do not glorify God by belittling man and denying humanity its proper glory. Humanism, with its emphasis on the splendour of the human person, at least gets that right. Man is glorious, and splendid, and worthy of praise. He has debased himself through sin and selfishness, but the glory remains, like gold that is covered over with a layer of dirt. This is the point of the psalmist in Psalm 8: “What is man, that You remember him, and the son of man, that You care for him? You have made him a little lower than God, and crown him with glory and majesty”. The glory of man remains, whether or not one translates the Hebrew elohim in this passage as “God” or “the angels”. Man retains his kingly position in earthly creation either way, and stands just slightly lower than those in heaven, because God “has put all things under his feet”.

~Taken from the Website of the Orthodox Church in America, http://oca.org/reflections/fr.-lawrence-farley/the-ascension-and-the-glorification-of-man.