When we part with a dear friend or our loved one, it is natural for us to feel sad. We feel frustrated to be separated from our family and friends by many thousands of kilometres and multiple time zones. We are dismayed by how quickly the pandemic turned national borders into formidable barriers for visiting. We sometimes despair at the great walls of misunderstanding that tear apart a supposedly lasting relationship.
The apostles must have felt some sadness as they watched Christ rising to the Father in a cloud and realised that Christ's ministry and physical presence on earth had come to an end. They were parting with the incarnate Christ, Who had made them a part of His ministry; Who forgave them and gave them His love; Who accepted death on the cross for the salvation of man. Even after His death, He continued to appear to them to show the reality of His resurrection. Now He was leaving. He had spoken to them of His departure many times before, and every time they did so, they were saddened. The cloud from Heaven was carrying Him away to the skies. He disappeared from their view, but they still stood and watched until the angels called out to them.
Yet, as we know from the Scripture when the Apostles returned to Jerusalem, they were joyful. Their joy represents the whole meaning of the Feast. Jesus, the Son of Man, ascended to His Father in Heaven, making it visible to them and everybody else that the way to heaven was open to every human being. The consequences of Adam and Eve's original sin were finally reversed. As He had said to His apostles, "my Father's house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?" (John 14:2). With His ascension, He became invisibly present for everyone on earth. As He was departing, He promised the descent from Heaven of the Holy Spirit to strengthen the spirits of the Apostles and every living person.
The Apostles would live a life full of hardships and sorrows. They would meet much hostility and misunderstanding. Nearly all of them died as martyrs for their faith. The presence of Christ and the power of the spirit gave them the strength to bear them with bravery, dignity and joy. The gift of His presence and the blessing of His spirit are equally essential to help us bear our hardships, keep our spirits pure, and project His love to others and enrich ourselves towards Heaven.
Orthodox Christians celebrate the Ascension of our Lord as a great and joyful feast. An all-night vigil is celebrated in our churches on its eve, followed by the Liturgy of John Chrysostom on the day of the feast. Here at Saint Elisabeth Convent, an ardent prayer will be a key attribute of the celebration. We will pray that we would not lose the feeling of God's presence in our lives for a minute. We pray that we can recognise His presence in the beauty of a rainbow, the love of our families and the smile of a stranger. We pray that we will continue to share our smiles and give our love and care to all our neighbours, assuring them of God's presence. We hope that we would all live in a kinder, juster and more hospitable world as a result.
As Christ was rising on the cloud, he was blessing His disciples. He never stops giving us His blessings. On this joy-filled feast, we wish everyone God's blessings in the good works of their salvation.
On 2 June, 2019, the church in honour of St John of Shanghai and San Francisco was consecrated. Among our guests was Bishop Emeritus of the Russian Church Abroad Michael (Donskov). He shared with us his childhood memories of St John.