• Fr. Peter Kavanaugh

Lift Thine Eyes: From Dirt to God

“Lift thine eyes, O lift thine eyes to the mountain, whence cometh help.”

A point came in Elijah’s life when all he could think about was death. He’d wrestled with the grimness of the world around him, and it eventually crushed him. So he prayed, “Lord, I’ve had enough. Please, let me die.” In the scene that follows we find one of God’s most gentle responses to suffering. Elijah falls asleep, and then, we read, an angel “touches him,” saying, “Arise and eat.” He looks up and finds a warm cake and a little water. This angel seems a bit like a mother, softly waking her sick child, and then giving the child a little comfort food. Elijah eats the cake and falls asleep. Then the angel returns and again “touches him” and offers more warm food, saying, “Arise and eat, because the journey is great.” So revived and encouraged, the prophet sets off to climb Mount Horeb where he at last finds God.

In the 19th century, a German composer named Felix Mendelssohn was struck by this story and inspired to write what became the famous song, “Lift Thine Eyes.” Imagining the gentle angel with the despairing prophet, he composed the words we sang this morning, “Lift thine eyes, O lift thine eyes to the mountain, whence cometh help.”

Pascha is over and we’re celebrating the Ascension of our Lord. Christ has risen from the dead and spent 40 days visiting with His disciples. At last, He brings them up a mountain, and in the sight all of, ascends into the sky. “While he blessed them,” Luke writes, “He parted from them, and was carried up into heaven.” (Luke 24). Christ vanishes and the angel who appears finds the whole crowd in one, same position. Their hearts were full of joy and their eyes were lifted up.

What is the message of the Ascension? In many ways, Ascension can be summed up in this one phrase, “Lift thine eyes.”

Christ talked about the Ascension long before it occurred.

“I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you” (Jn 16:7). In a nutshell, He’s saying, “When I go up, the Spirit will come down.” Christ brings humanity up to Heaven. The Spirit brings divinity down to Earth. You remember in Genesis when God forms man out of clay and then breathes His spirit into the clay. On Ascension Day a similar thing happens, but even more profound.

Do you know what Resurrection means in Greek: Aνάστασις ~ “Up-standing.” It’s similar to the word Ascension:‘ανάληψη’ ~ Up-taking. Something happens when we join our lives to Christ. We’re invited into a new way of being.

I’ve friend who was a firm atheist before giving his life to Christ. In one of our conversations he described this ‘new way of being’ with an illustration. He told me, «There are two ways of looking at the world. One is to see the world as dirt, the other is to see the world as sublime.»

One way of living is to see the world around you as just a bunch of atoms and molecules. In this mode you can admire the planets, the stars, and even the beauty of nature...but it doesn’t really have any meaning. The universe is just a vacuum, and our planet is just a tiny blimp in it all. In the end, our bustling about, our technology, our discoveries, our accomplishments down here don’t really mean much, because they’re all going to get swept away with time. At best, we can just find meaning wherever we can, try to be positive, maybe be nice or a good citizen, and though that doesn’t really make us happy, we can survive until we take our last breath and realize it was all a farse.

But there’s a second mode of living, and that’s to see the world as sublime – to see the same planets, and stars and nature as the artwork of a Creator who’se woven the universe together with his Spirit and given everything meaning and purpose. When you see the person next to you, you see Christ within Him. When you enjoy a piece of music, you hear the heartbeat of God. Or when you wake up in the morning you know that the simple jobs you have to do are profound when they become opportunities to pray and connect with our Lord and Savior.

The Ascension means we can live a new kind of life – not as mere evolved apes going about our business, but as sons and daughters of God. Ascension invites us to become up-standing people – having our eyes lift up like the disciples.

Perhaps you can think about it like this. In school we were taught that we’re all homosapiens: ‘rational people.’ Well, when we give over our hearts to Christ we become homo suspicens: ‘men looking upward.’

Have you ever noticed how often our society misunderstands Christianity. When you become Christian you have to give up certain things. We’ve all heard the litany of «do’s» and «don’ts» that come with the Church. But we sometimes forget why they exist.

We aren’t told to give up anything because God doesn’t want us to have fun. It’s just the opposite. God gives us boundaries so that we can play harder, without risking of falling over a cliff or breaking our bones. Sin is really simple. It’s like the boy who prefers to eat mud pie then to go inside, wash up, and eat real custard. The only real sin is that we settle for cheap pleasures, and we don’t invest enough in eternal joy.

God’s invitation to lift our eyes is just this – to start being homo suspicens, to feast on God with all our heart, mind and soul.

But we forget...and that’s why we celebrate the ascension every year.

In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul writes, “If ye then be risen with Christ seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:1-3).

Truth be told, we can be pretty forgetful. The minute we lose sight of what life is about – or in Paul’s words, set our affections on things on the earth – what happens? We get anxious, or scarred, or find our selves grumbling or bitter. We’ve let our heads droop and cast our eyes on the floor. Like Elijah, we start out with the hope to serve God, but then we get caught up in our jobs, our responsibilities, or our disappointments, and that early zeal just barely flickers.

This happens to us at Church too. Sometimes, when we’ve forgotten why we first started going to church or we’ve gotten stuck in the rut of routine or complaisance, something switches off in our hearts. We first go to church because we fall in love with God and want to be with Him every possible moment. Mass becomes an opportunity to fall on your knees in awe of God and to open your heart to His Grace. But then, little by little, going to church becomes a duty, and then it’s only a short time before it becomes a burden. We lose our first love because we’ve set our affections on things below. We’ve cast our eyes down and stopped seeming the sublime around us.

And so St. Paul reminds us, “brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think on these things” (Philippians 4:8). This has nothing to do with wishful thinking. It’s about being homo suspicens – having our eyes lifted up to God and to Reality.

On a final note, I want to come back to our gospel reading today. On the Sunday after the Ascension, Christ warns His disciples of what to expect after the Ascension. It’s not all flowers and roses. “I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling,” he begins. “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me” (John 16:1-3).

Most people aren’t angry with God. Most people simply don’t know God.

Christ says this on the very cross. “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”

When our eyes aren’t open to God, we walk around down here like blind mice, bumbling around in circles, and never beginning to life the life that God desires for us. This is what Christianity is about. That list of “do’s” and “don’ts” is about walking the path that gives life meaning. Coming to mass, eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ, making your confession as often as you can, fasting from foods and noise, spending time in quiet and meditation, forgiving and loving the people around you, and doing everything you can to pursue God’s commandments…this isn’t about duty, it’s about possibility of becoming more alive.

The more time we spend loving God, the more our eyes open up. The more we strain our heart to God the more awake we become.

This is our job, to lift our eyes from dirt to God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Saint Benedict Orthodox Church

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Wichita Falls, TX, 76309