THE ASCENSION OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST
To the Most Reverend and Right Reverend Hierarchs, Very Reverend and Reverend Clergy, Monastics,
Faithful of The Orthodox Archdiocese of America, of the Diocese of East and Southeast Asia,
of the Anglican Vicariate, and Friends:
Dearly Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Christ
Then he said to them, “Go to every part of the world, and proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation.” Mark 16:15 (REB)
In the Spring of 1942, I had been in the choir of St. Andrew's Church in Albany, New York for more than three years. The war was in full swing, and the whole nation was filled with songs of hope and patriotism of one sort or another. Especially we sang the songs associated with the various parts of the armed forces. Among these was the one for the Army Air Force:
Off we go, into the wild blue yonder,
flying high, over the skies . . .
As the church year moved on towards Ascension Day, our supply organist (the regular one was in the Navy Sea Bees) applied these words to the Ascension of the Lord Jesus. To this day, when I think of Ascension Day, these words (altered, of course, to “Off he goes. . .”) always come to mind. Even though we felt just a bit guilty about making fun of religious things, we enjoyed the chuckle.
We needed that kind of thing. Even we kids knew that things were not going the way they were supposed to go in the war. This was a new kind of war where the soldiers did not see the enemy face to face; the technology of the airplane had come into use near the end of World War 1, but the armed forces had not really begun to develop the airplanes the way they should have. Now, even though the USA had tried hard to remain out of (and to a degree, above) the war, we were fully in it, and we weren't ending this matter in the short time we thought it would take, now that we were in it. It became quite clear very quickly that if we were to succeed in our task, it was the airplanes that were going to win. And the way to get that message out was to get as many planes in the air as possible.
At this same time in my life (I was going to be twelve in October), several other things happened. Among them was that I discovered Grace Church in Albany, and I was instantly hooked on Catholic worship. Father Gavitt, the rector, was the author/compiler of the devotional book “St. Augustine's Prayer Book”. No doubt many of you are familiar with it. Father Gavitt became a mentor, friend and model of mine. His weekly mimeographed instructions “Tidings” presented the faith and practice of the church with much clarity. His sermons were both biblical and historical in basis. He had studied at the General Theological Seminary under Dean Hughell Fosbroke, who had introduced the German Biblical Criticism into the USA, starting as Dean of Nashotah House before he went on to General. Fr. Gavitt presented all of this with care in the fully catholic surroundings of Grace Church.
I went to Grace Church on Ascension Day for a full Solemn Mass -- quite rare in those days. Father Gavitt preached a sermon on the Ascension that also stuck with me -- just as much as the Army Air Corps song.
"Jesus went up," he said. He went on to say that “Of course, this was the most natural thing that could happen. The work that Jesus had to do was accomplished on the Cross when he shouted in triumph, ‘It is finished.’” Now that his work was completed, Jesus would become a problem if he stayed around. People would flock to see him, alive from the dead. People would want Jesus to perform miracles on them. And the new People of God would have little or nothing to do, and certainly there would be no need for any new outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Things would be done for humans, not by humans: there would be no need for St. Basil's declaration that God's actions in Christ enabled humans to “become God”. So, if the message of salvation and the love of God for each and every human being was to be preached in every land, having Jesus in one place was the wrong thing. So, as a practical matter, Jesus had to be gotten out of the way:
“Off he goes, into . . .” as St. Luke tells it.
But you see, that is in fact exactly what has to happen. If the Gospel is to be proclaimed, it has to be done in the most effective and efficient manner possible. We call that the “Catholic Church.” The Catholic Church has a specific job: to proclaim (preach) the love of God for each and every human being, and asking each person to live accordingly.
When our Allied airplanes were not up and doing their job, the war went the wrong way. In a variety of places, the ground forces did not -- often could not -- do what was needed. The airplanes cleared the way so that the message could get through.
The Ascension cleared the way so that God's message could get through. When Christians try to present Jesus as the message, they deny the Gospel. "What Would Jesus Do" is really nonsense. The Gospel that Jesus proclaimed is really very simple: God loves all of Creation; God especially loves humans; God promises joy and peace and fulfillment when humans love as God loves. Humans do not kill other humans they are brothers and sisters. The message of the love of God is for all humans. Jesus died so that no other human would ever need to die to bring peace, love, joy, creativity, brotherhood even democracy to the whole world.
That is why Jesus said : “Go to every part of the world, and proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation.”
Archbishop of New York
Metropolitan of The Holy Orthodox Catholic and Apostolich Church of America
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Over the years, some have asked to have a copy of Archbishop Anthony’s Prayer. Here it is: