(†) The Ascension of our Lord (Heroes Day); Holy Great Martyr John the New of Suceava

(†) The Ascension of our Lord (Heroes Day)

The Ascension of our Lord – I ascend unto My Father and your Father, and to My God, and Your God (John 20:17). In these words the Risen Christ described to Mary Magdalene the mystery of His Resurrection. She had to carry this mysterious message to His disciples, “as they mourned and wept” (Mark 16:10).

In the Ascension resides the meaning and the fullness of Christ’s Resurrection. The Lord did not rise in order to return again to the fleshly order of life, so as to live again and commune with the disciples and the multitudes by means of preaching and miracles.

Now he does not even stay with them, but only “appears” to them during the forty days, from time to time, and always in a miraculous and mysterious manner. “He was not always with them now, as He was before the Resurrection,” comments Saint John Chrysostom. “He came and again disappeared, thus leading them on to higher conceptions.

He no longer permitted them to continue in their former relationship toward Him, but took effectual measures to secure these two objects: That the fact of His Resurrection should be believed, and that He Himself should be ever after apprehended to be greater than man.” There was something new and unusual in His person (cf. John 21:1-14).

As Saint John Chrysostom says, “It was not an open presence, but a certain testimony of the fact that He was present.” That is why the disciples were confused and frightened. Christ arose not in the same way as those who were restored to life before Him.

Theirs was a resurrection for a time, and they returned to life in the same body, which was subject to death and corruption—returned to the previous mode of life. But Christ arose for ever, unto eternity. He arose in a body of glory, immortal and incorruptible.

He arose, never to die, for “He clothed the mortal in the splendor of incorruption.” His glorified Body was already exempt from the fleshly order of existence. “It is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory.

It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (I Cor. 15:42-44). This mysterious transformation of human bodies, of which Saint Paul was speaking in the case of our Lord, had been accomplished in three days. Christ’s work on earth was accomplished.

And now He ascends to the Father, yet He does not “go away,” but abides with the faithful for ever (cf. The Kontakion of Ascension). For He raises the very earth with Him to heaven, and even higher than any heaven. God’s power, in the phrase of Saint John Chrysostom, “manifests itself not only in the Resurrection, but in something much stronger.” For “He was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19).

And with Christ, man’s nature ascends also. “We who seemed unworthy of the earth, are now raised to heaven,” says Saint John Chrysostom. “We who were unworthy of earthly dominion have been raised to the Kingdom on high, have ascended higher than heaven, have came to occupy the King’s throne, and the same nature from which the angels guarded Paradise, stopped not until it ascended to the throne of the Lord.

“By His Ascension the Lord not only opened to man the entrance to heaven, not only appeared before the face of God on our behalf and for our sake, but likewise “transferred man” to the high places. “He honored them He loved by putting them close to the Father.”

God quickened and raised us together with Christ, as Saint Paul says, “and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephes. 2:6). Heaven received the inhabitants of the earth. “The First fruits of them that slept” sits now on high, and in Him all creation is summed up and bound together. “The earth rejoices in mystery, and the heavens are filled with joy.”

“The terrible ascent….” Terror-stricken and trembling stand the angelic hosts, contemplating the Ascension of Christ. And trembling they ask each other, “What is this vision? One who is man in appearance ascends in His body higher than the heavens, as God.”

Thus the Office for the Feast of the Ascension depicts the mystery in a poetical language. As on the day of Christ’s Nativity the earth was astonished on beholding God in the flesh, so now the Heavens do tremble and cry out. “The Lord of Hosts, Who reigns over all, Who is Himself the head of all, Who is preeminent in all things, Who has reinstated creation in its former order—He is the King of Glory.”

And the heavenly doors are opened: “Open, Oh heavenly gates, and receive God in the flesh.” It is an open allusion to Psalms 24:7-10, now prophetically interpreted. “Lift up your heads, Oh ye gates, and be lifted up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty….” Saint Chrysostom says, “Now the angels have received that for which they have long waited, the archangels see that for which they have long thirsted.

The Ascension is the token of Pentecost, the sign of its coming, “The Lord has ascended to heaven and will send the Comforter to the world”

The very existence of the Church is the fruit of the Ascension. It is in the Church that man’s nature is truly ascended to the Divine heights. “And gave Him to be Head over all things” (Ephesians 1:22). Saint John Chrysostom comments: “Amazing! Look again, whither He has raised the Church. As though He were lifting it up by some engine, He has raised it up to a vast height, and set it on yonder throne; for where the Head is, there is the body also.

There is no interval of separation between the Head and the body; for were there a separation, then would the one no longer be a body, nor would the other any longer be a Head.” The whole race of men is to follow Christ, even in His ultimate exaltation, “to follow in His train.”

Within the Church, through an acquisition of the Spirit in the fellowship of Sacraments, the Ascension continues still, and will continue until the measure is full. “Only then shall the Head be filled up, when the body is rendered perfect, when we are knit together and united,” concludes Saint John Chrysostom.

The Ascension is a sign and token of the Second Coming. “This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).

Troparion — Tone 4

O Christ God, You have ascended in Glory, / granting joy to Your disciples by the promise of the Holy Spirit. / Through the blessing they were assured / that You are the Son of God, / the Redeemer of the world!

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Holy Great Martyr John the New of Suceava

The Holy Great Martyr John the New of Suceava lived in the fourteenth century in the city of Trebizond. He was a merchant, devout and firm in his Orthodoxy, and generous to the poor.

Once, he happened to be sailing on a ship while pursuing his trading activities. The captain of the ship was not Orthodox, but got into an argument about the Faith with St John.

Having been vanquished by the saint’s words, the captain resolved to make trouble for him when they got to Belgorod. During the ship’s stay at Belgorod, at the mouth of Dniester River, the captain went to the city ruler, a fire-worshipper, and suggested that on his ship was a studious man who also desired to become a fire-worshipper. The city ruler invited St John to join the fire-worshippers and renounce his faith in Christ.

The saint prayed secretly, calling on the help of Him Who said, “When they shall lead you, and deliver you up, take no thought beforehand what you shall speak, neither do you premeditate; but whatsoever will be given you in that hour, speak that, for it is not you that speaks, but the Holy Spirit” (Mark 13:11).

And the Lord gave him the courage and understanding to counter all the claims of the impious and firmly confess himself a Christian. After this, the saint was so fiercely beaten with rods that his entire body was lacerated, and the flesh came off in pieces. The holy martyr thanked God for being found worthy to shed his blood for Him and thereby wash away his sins.

Afterwards they put him in chains and dragged him away to prison. In the morning the city ruler ordered the saint brought forth again. The martyr came before him with a bright and cheerful face. The intrepid martyr absolutely refused to deny Christ, denouncing the governor as a tool of Satan. Then they beat him again with rods, so that all his insides were laid bare.

The gathering crowd could not bear this horrible spectacle and they began to shout angrily, denouncing the governor for tormenting a defenseless man. The governor, having the beating stopped, gave orders to tie the Great Martyr to the tail of a wild horse to drag him by the legs through the streets of the city. Residents of the Jewish quarter particularly scoffed at the martyr and threw stones at him. Finally, someone took a sword and cut off his head.

St John’s body with his severed head lay there until evening, and none of the Christians dared to take him away. By night a luminous pillar was seen over him, and a multitude of burning lamps. Three light-bearing men sang Psalms and censed the body of the saint. One of the Jews, thinking that these were Christians coming to take up the remains of the martyr, grabbed a bow and tried to shoot an arrow at them, but he was restrained by the invisible power of God, and became rigid.

In the morning the vision vanished, but the archer continued to stand motionless. Having told the gathering inhabitants of the city about the vision and what was done to him by the command of God, he was freed from his invisible bonds. Having learned about the occurrence, the ruler gave permission to bury the body of the martyr in the local church. This occurred between the years 1330 and 1340. There is some question about the year of the saint’s martyrdom. St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain gives the year as 1642, while others say it was 1492.

The captain who had betrayed St John repented of his deed, and decided secretly to convey the relics to his own country, but the saint appeared in a dream to the priest of the church, and prevented this. After seventy years the relics were transferred to Sochi, the capital of the Moldo-Valachian principality, and placed in the cathedral church.”

Another detail from the life of St. John the New: “The angels of the Lord do not want to be worshipped. When an angel showed St. John the new Paradise in Heaven with all its marvels, St. John fell at the feet of the angel to worship him. But the angel did not allow that, saying: Do it not, for I am thy fellow servant, and of thy brethren the prophets, and of them which keep the sayings of this book: worship God (Rev. 22:8-9). Yea, we worship God alone.”

And the appearance of St. John after his martyrdom and his Holy Relics: “An Orthodox priest in the city saw the New Martyr in a dream. John asked him to bring his body to the Church. There the Holy Relics remained for many years until the Ruler (Voievod) of Moldova Alexander the Good (Alexandru cel Bun) at the request of Metropolitan Joseph brought them to his capital city of Suceava on the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Forerunner, June 24, 1402. We may note the coincidence of the names and the martyr’s heroism of both these great followers of Christ.

In 1685 the Relics of St. John were taken by the Polish King Jan Sobieski to Stryy in Ukraine. They were later transferred to the Basilian Monastery in Zhovkva, also in Halychyna. The Austrian Emperor Joseph II returned them to Suceava in 1783. The Monastery that bears his name was the site of huge pilgrimages on the day of commemorating his martyrdom. Many people came from Bukovyna.

Troparion – Tone 4

You governed your life well on earth, working charity and incessantly praying with tears, you who suffered contests with courage, rebuking the Persian unbelief. Therefore you made yourself strong for the Church and are the boast for the Christians, O John, you shall ever be remembered.

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