A homily by His Grace, Bishop Partenij of Antania, given at Divine Liturgy for the feast of the Lord’s Ascension, in Rajčica Monastery, on June 2nd in the year of Our Lord 2022.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
My beloved, the Paschal season has ended and is already behind us, yesterday at the Leave-taking of the Feast we glorified the resurrection for the last time this year with great joy in our souls, with hymns of victory and constant longing for the grace of the Resurrection. Today, however, we celebrate when Christ the Savior went from the Earth to the Heavens in angelic glory with His divine-human body. The Ascension of the Lord is a mysterious feast: we remember Christ’s departure, His departure from the disciples, and yet we still gloriously rejoice. This is because Ascension is the proclamation of the descent of the Holy Spirit, through Whom we see and understand Christ. “And behold, I will send the promise of My Father upon you, and He will give you another Comforter to be with you forever, the Spirit of truth” (Luke 24:49 and John 14:16-17). Therefore, the miracle of the Resurrection remains embedded deep in our hearts and we live it experientially through the Spirit of God, participating in everything that happened to the Lord Jesus for our sake. In the Holy Church, through the Holy Spirit who resides in her, and through the mediation of the uncreated energies of God, we are present by grace at all these saving events.
Ascension is a feast for the salvation of the whole man. Specifically, the Son and Word of God took on a human body to save man’s nature and deify his body. Saint John Chrysostom says that if we want to know the greatness of man and the glory that is planted in him, we should direct our gaze to the heights, to the throne of God, and there we will see Him, seated at the right hand of God the Father, the Man Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. With the Resurrection and Ascension of the Lord, the human race entered into the very mystery of the Holy Trinity.
This was also the purpose of Christ’s coming: to recreate Adam and deify all of human nature so that it could participate in God’s Divinity. This great mystery has been realized. Through the uncreated Divine energies that act in the sacramental life of the Church, we are now given the opportunity to unite with God and be deified. It is, in fact, our purpose, it is the purpose for which we were created: to share in the joy of our Lord and the eternal Kingdom of beauty. But we should ask ourselves how much we actually understand and strive after this purpose of ours. For His part, the Lord performed everything that was necessary for our salvation and deification. He cried out on the Cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Thus He completed His earthly course as the God-man, fulfilling all that was necessary for our liberation. He went down to Hades and there he proclaimed to all the righteous that the salvation of the world had come, that one day they will be resurrected together with their deified bodies, and then He gloriously ascended to the Heavens with His body. The souls of our deceased loved ones are alive today because they were called by the Resurrection, though their bodies are still dust. Some saints, by God’s grace, have kept their bodies intact, without decaying, but these are only rare exceptions. The vast majority have been turned into earth. Maybe some people have doubts and wonder how it is possible that one day all those bodies, of which today there is nothing left, will come before the face of God vivified, whole, and deified. Is that even possible? In fact, it is enough for the One Who created the whole world in wisdom from nothing, both the spiritual and the physical worlds, to conceive of it in His Divine Mind, to say just one life-giving word, and the bodies of the dead will be re-created from the dust and will be united with their souls. We know for sure that this will happen at Christ’s Second Coming, as He Himself foretold and promised us in the Holy Scriptures.
He also promised us that he would not leave us as orphans, “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. A little while longer and the world will see Me no more, but you will see Me. Because I live you will live also” (John 14:18-19). In His Church, He lives with us and we with Him. Here He is always present, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In the Church, the divide between life here on earth and the world beyond is very thin, transparent, and almost non-existent. The spiritual world is very close to us and we Christians in the Church of God can see and feel it. The saints, the souls of the righteous, and the departed communicate with us mysteriously, send us messages, comfort us, and encourage us. Of course, this is if we allow them to do so, which we do by trying to live a spiritual life with goodness and a pure heart.
I will give you an example that is constantly on my mind lately. After I became a priest I always prayed for the repose of the souls of all those who died during the fall of Constantinople, today’s Istanbul, in 1453. I felt some inner need, like a calling, to pray for the last Roman Emperor and Martyr, Constantine XI Palaiologos, and for all those who laid down their souls together with him, bravely defending New Rome, the Orthodox capital, from the Ottomans. Every year in the Monastery, from the very beginning until now, we have a special commemoration service on the day of the fall of Constantinople. We have also various articles about it that you can read on our website. But then, there have been people, even Christians, who asked me why I was doing that, saying that we supposedly had nothing to do with these people, so why was there a need for us to mention those who fell for Constantinople in our prayers? Despite this, we have not stopped commemorating them or praying for them. I explained to those who wanted to truly understand that we have a Christian duty to pray for all those who defended Orthodox holy places, that we are a part of the Byzantine spiritual heritage, that Constantinople was the capital of all Orthodox Christians, and through the Ecumenical Patriarchate remains so to this day, regardless of which states and nations now exist on former Byzantine soil. Thus, I am confident that those souls from the walls of Constantinople, with their emperor Constantine, together with all the Saints and the righteous, interceded for us with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to recognize the Ohrid Archbishopric after 255 years. And just imagine, the first concelebration between our Archbishop and the Ecumenical Patriarch will take place in Constantinople on the upcoming feast of Pentecost, the eve of which, by God’s providence, coincides exactly with the memory of the martyred Emperor Constantine and others with him according to the Julian calendar this year. There is the answer to the question of why we have always felt the need to pray for those martyred souls.
I will give you another good example. The first letter from our Holy Synod requesting an appeal to the Ecumenical Patriarch was sent on May 9, 2018. By God’s omniscience, our Church was also accepted into canonical and Eucharistic unity on May 9th four years later. On the same date, May 9, 2019, the great and holy Elder, Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra, reposed in the Lord. Together with my brothers and sisters, monks and nuns, we were at his funeral at Annunciation Monastery in Ormylia. Then we prayed to the blessed Elder to send help from Heaven for our Church to be recognized. After that, we visited his grave several more times, always with the same prayer. In the meantime, we learned that Elder Aimilianos particularly loved the Venerable Jerome of Simonopetra, also known as the Elder of the Ascension, whose memory is also celebrated on May 9th. That means the blessed Elder reposed on the feast day of his beloved Saint. Next, when on March 31st of this year, with several brothers, we visited the blessed Metropolitan Paul of Drama, there was a very beautiful photo of Elder Aimilianos in his office. When the bishop saw that we were looking at it and were interested in it, he told us that he respected the Elder very much and that they had been very close. Soon after, on May 2nd, Metropolitan Paul suddenly reposed in the Lord. When we went to his funeral, we prayed to him to continue advocating for the recognition of our Church, because at the time he had been a great advocate for us at the Ecumenical Patriarchate for a solution to our Church’s problem. And then, at the end of the official announcement from the Ecumenical Patriarchate given on May 9th was a phrase from the blessed Metropolitan Paul, that the Church is “a place of love, a source of piety for the race of Orthodox Christians.” Obviously, Elder Aimilianos and Metropolitan Paul, together with the martyrs of Constantinople, interceded from Heaven for our Church’s recognition.
So you see, my beloved, and I’m sure you yourself have felt how close that world is to us. Those who have acquired freedom before God in the heavenly Church help us and intercede for us. This is exactly why our Savior came to Earth: to destroy the barrier of death and gather all His children into His Body, the Church. Before Christ came there was a terrible partition between Earth and Heaven. All the dead, and even the souls of the righteous, had no freedom before God. Asleep in the death and darkness of Hades, they were almost in a state of non-existence. But with the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, that barrier is destroyed and now Heaven is full of righteous souls, full of saints, with our relatives who stand before the Face of God and pray for the earthly Church in which we are and which is in a constant war with evil. Of course, this is not a war we fight with ordinary earthly weapons, but a war that takes place first and foremost within ourselves, a war with our passions, sins, selfishness, and the evil that resides within us. It is only when we fight with ourselves and with the old man in us that we become part of the strong spiritual army of the Church of Christ and contribute to the general victory of good in the world. In this way we are preparing to enter the heavenly Church, which has already won its victory, led by the First Martyr crucified on the Cross. Through His body, He freed human nature from the bonds of death, deified it, and brought it to Heaven to the right hand of God the Father. With this, he left us a gift and a call, so that one day we too may become so illumined as to stand in the Kingdom of Heaven with our deified bodies.
For all this, my beloved, let us thank Christ God, who has done so much for us and constantly calls us to a sacramental and pure life led in grace, so that we can witness to Him as light, as absolute and inexpressible goodness. We are all, therefore, destined and called to be the children of God and to stand at the right hand of our Triune God. Amen.