Christ Ascending and Descending

The Sunday after Theophany

But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore He says: “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.” (Now this, “He ascended” – what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.    (Ephesians 4:7-13)

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Now when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, He departed to Galilee. And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  (Matthew 4:12-17)

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Our Epistle today, Ephesians 4:7-13, quoting from Psalm 68:18, mentions Christ  ascending and descending.  He ascended to God’s throne above the heavens after His resurrection, and also descended into Hades upon His death on the cross.   This Ephesians reading for the Sunday after Theophany is tying together for us several ideas that the Church wishes to emphasize in its proclamation of the Good News.   Of course there is that cosmic picture of Christ who is God the Word descending to earth to be born in a cave and laid in an animal manger  – an event we celebrate as the Nativity of Christ.  But Christ continued His descent, dying on the cross, being buried and descending into Hades to free all the dead from imprisonment and slavery to Satan.  Christ ascended from Hades to appear on earth to show us all His resurrection.  He then continued His ascent all the way to the throne of God’s Kingdom above the heavens.

And this cosmic picture of Christ ascending from Hades to the height of heaven which is also our salvation is foreshadowed in the events of Christ’s descending at his baptism down into the Jordan River and then ascending out of the River to be proclaimed God’s own son.  Baptism as we all should know is exactly an image of being buried beneath the waters and then raised from the dead to new life.   Christ foreshadows his death and resurrection with His dying and rising at his baptism in the River Jordan.

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Additionally, at the baptism of Christ, the feast we call Theophany, the Holy Trinity is revealed to us as well as to the entire world.  This is the great Light which has dawned for us that is mentioned today’s Gospel lesson.

The connection between Theophany and Christ’s descent into Hades was made at one point in Orthodox history when numerous Orthodox churches took to painting on the back (west) wall of the Church, two icon frescos, one on top of the other.  The upper panel/fresco had the Baptism of Christ from Theophany in which the Trinity is revealed to us.  Beneath that icon was the icon of Christ’s Descent into Hades with those saved souls looking up to the icon of the Baptism of Christ.  They understood the Baptism of Christ was the prefiguring of His descent into Hades.  In those churches with the large fresco icons one on top of the other, the door to the church was located in Hades as well.  On Holy Saturday, the congregation in the church would watch as the newly baptized were brought into the church literally passing through their own death and sojourn to Hades where they were united to and saved by Christ.  All of that is still remembered in our Church on Holy Friday when we enter the church after our procession and all pass beneath the winding sheet and we have the ideas that we are passing into the tomb of Christ as into Hades itself where we proclaim and celebrate the resurrection!

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The Epistle mentions Christ leading the captives out and bestowing on them gifts.   We understand this as our being led out of imprisonment in Hades, slaves to death.  The gifts given to us are those Christ bestows on His church as mentioned in today’s epistle.

Christ creates the Church and all the offices of the Church and gives spiritual gifts for all the personnel He needs to carry on His ministry.  He gives us spiritual gifts so that we can accomplish His will on earth.   For Christ passes on to us that we as members of the parish and as members of the Body of Christ are to be the light of the world:

46718055141_fe4d57b0f9_n“You are the light of the world.  . .  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.   (Matthew 5:14-16)

The Great light which has dawned and which people see is not Christ alone, but us as the Body of Christ.  All of us united to Christ as His Body, the Church, for as St. Paul says in 1 Cor 3:16

 – You (plural) are God’s temple.  You (people) have God’s Spirit living in us.

The Church is not a building, but the people of God.  The Church is you and I doing God’s will on earth.

When people come and see the Orthodox Church, they might come and look at the beautiful, interesting and ancient icons on the walls of the building, but they should come to see the living temple, the living icons – namely you!

It is not the building that makes us Orthodox.  It is not the building that makes the Orthodox Church.  It is you people, the parishioners, the members of this parish!

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We extend an invitation to others to come and see the Orthodox Church, we should also be inviting them to see

How we live

How we love God and neighbor

How we worship God.

How we love one another.

How we are like Christ.

People need to come here not only to see icons or to see the Liturgy and Orthodox worship but to see us –

To see:

24765159445_b73aee26d1_nLove               Faith

Hope              Joy

Beauty           Light

Truth             Peace

In us!

St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 –

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?  . . .  For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are.

God entrusts us to make His Holiness present on earth and available to all who wish to enter into Communion with Him.  God wants us to be witnesses to the Light, but also to be that Light to the world.

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