WHY DO YOU STAND LOOKING INTO HEAVEN?
Fr Dimitri Cozby
“Men, Galileans, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus who has thus ascended from you into heaven will return in the manner which you saw Him go up into heaven.” (Acts 1:11)
For forty days after His Resurrection, our Lord appeared among His disciples, both teaching them the significance of His person and work and instructing them in the role they were to play in the spread of His message. He reminded them that His coming was foretold by the prophets, and that those enlightened seers had understood the meaning of His suffering and rising again (Luke 24:44-46). He also spoke of the need to spread that Gospel message throughout the world and pledged that the Holy Spirit would soon descend upon them (Luke 24:47, 49; Acts 1:8).
At the end of this glorious period He blessed them and departed from their company. The disciples continued gazing into the heavens where the Savior had disappeared. In the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Luke records that, “while they were still staring into heaven, as He was going up, suddenly two men in white clothing were standing with them” (1:11). These heavenly beings addressed the apostles in the words cited above, gently chiding them, and they affirmed that, at the proper time, Christ will return.
This promise is certainly full of hope and comfort to all who await God’s Kingdom. The Lord’s return will establish His reign of righteousness and peace. But, the angel’s mild reproof reminds the apostles that the Savior’s return is a challenge to them. So also is His promise of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit will not be given merely as a consolation. The Lord’s return will not simply result in the vindication of their loyalty to His cause. The Lord did not intend His instruction merely to satisfy their curiosity about His mission. All of these things were a challenge to apostles, urging them to spiritual growth. The Lord’s instruction and the Spirit’s coming are also part of their commissioning to proclaim the Gospel and to share the message and grace of salvation with the world.
In essence, the angels tell the apostles, “Why are you standing here? You have work to do. The One whom you adore wants you to worship Him by devoting your lives to Him.” They remind the apostles that the Lord has not called them to a life of passive adoration. Rather, He empowers them for a life of spiritual struggle and advancement, and He commissions them to spread His grace and truth in the world. They must not remain gazing into heaven pining for their vanished Lord. Instead they are to return to Jerusalem and, when the divine Spirit descends upon them, accept and use the grace and insight He imparts to transform themselves, to become His Church, and to prepare the world for His return, according to the Gospel.
This challenge does not belong to the disciples alone. The angels are also addressing us. The Christian life is not quiet contemplation; that blessed state comes only when we achieve union with God through repentance, perfect faith, and love. Until then we struggle against temptations from the world and passions within our souls – instructed and encouraged by our Lord’s words, directed and strengthened by the Holy Spirit. Until then we are called to grow in the divine image and through that image glowing within us proclaim Christ’s truth to the world.
Throughout the Gospels Christ exhorts us to vigilance and to an active pursuit of virtue. Complacency can have no place in the Christian life. We are all familiar with the Lord’s parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-29). In the parable, the master gives various large sums of money to each of his servants and then departs on a journey. On his return he demands a reckoning from each of the use to which they have put his money and the return they have produced. He rewards the two servants who invested and increased the portion allotted to them, but he punishes the one who hides his away.
The talents here represent the many gifts which He has bestowed upon us. Christ does not limit them to natural gifts, such as intelligence or skills, nor to material blessings. The talents are everything which God has bestowed upon us: the gift of life itself, the inspiration of His example, the wisdom of His teaching, the redeeming energy of His death and Resurrection, the illumining and empowering grace of His Spirit, the ineffable union with Him, by which we become righteous and holy through sharing in His righteousness and holiness. Our calling as Orthodox Christians is to use these divine gifts. Grace must take over our lives, consuming sin and its effects and filling us with holiness. Our calling is to let the Lord’s deliverance fill our lives so that we, in turn, may be the conduit through which salvation flows out into the world. New life and grace are not given us for our appreciation, but so that they may transform us and others through us.
St Gregory of Nyssa reminds us, “Three things characterize the life of Christ: action, word, thought. For thought is the beginning of every word; second, after the thinking, is the word which reveals through the voice the thought coined in the soul; and action has the third rank after mind and thought bringing what is thought to action …. What, then, is it necessary to do to be worthy of the name of Christ? What else than to distinguish in one’s self the proper thoughts and words and deeds, asking whether they look to Christ or are at odds with Christ …. For the purity in Christ and the purity seen in the person who has a share in Him are the same.”
We too are called to the purity of Christ. This requires a cleansing both of our deeds and of our words and thoughts. “Repentance” means a “renewal of the mind” or, as we might say in contemporary language, “a new attitude.” St Paul exhorts us “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2). We do not achieve this renewal by any other means than spiritual struggle, as the Apostle so often reminds us. Often he likens the spiritual life to warfare, as for example in Romans 7:23, and the Redeemer’s gifts to us as weapons (II Cor. 6:7 and 10:4; Ephesians 6:13-17). Anyone engaged in some contest, like a soldier or athlete, knows that mental preparation and a proper attitude toward the coming struggle are as important as any physical preparation. Likewise, the Apostle warns us that, to achieve true holiness we can must change our speech and action, but also especially our habits of thought and our way of perceiving the world, bringing our very soul into conformity with the mind of Christ. We are called to be “a living sacrifice”, offering every shred of our being to Christ so that we may become Christ.
The Savior’s holiness was manifest in His nature and His words, and above all in His deeds, in the vibrant love by which He gathered mankind to Himself and bestowed renewal and rebirth on our race. Our Lord came to found a Kingdom. He will return to see that Kingdom established in power. In the meantime, this Kingdom is entrusted to us. We are to make it alive in our own hearts and quicken its hope and promise in the hearts of others. We cannot do that by gazing after an absent Christ. We cannot bring in a return on our talent by empty religiosity or mere external conformity to pious routine. We do it only by opening our hearts through active repentance, a repentance which does not merely regret our past sins, but one which actively strives after a better life. This life flows to us from the Spirit who came upon the Apostles and who continues to dwell even now in Christ’s holy Church.