Sunday, May 16, 2010

St. Thomas on the Ascension of Christ

Unless you live in the dioceses of Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark or Philadelphia, today is the liturgical celebration of the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus into heaven. What could I say about this most glorious and mysterious conclusion to the earthly ministry of our Lord? Rather than attempt any words on this mystery, I give you the exposition the Angelic Doctor, who reminds us that Christ's Ascension was the second part of His exaltation, the first being the Resurrection (just as Christ's death and burial are two parts of His humiliation):

According to the Apostle, the exaltation of Christ was the reward for His humiliation. Therefore a twofold exaltation of Christ had to correspond to His twofold humiliation.

Christ had humbled Himself, first, by suffering death in the passible flesh He had assumed; secondly, He had undergone humiliation with reference to place, when His body was layed in the sepulcher and His soul descended into hell. The exaltation of the Resurrection, in which He returned from death to immortal life, corresponds to the first humiliation. And the exaltation of the Ascension corresponds to the second humiliation. Hence the Apostle says, in Ephesians, 4:10, "He that descended is the same that ascended above all the heavens."

However, as it is narrated of the Son of God that He was born, suffered, and was buried, and rose again, not in His divine nature but in His human nature, so also, we are told, He ascended into heaven, not in His divine nature but in His human nature. In His divine nature He had never left heaven, as He is always present everywhere. He indicates this Himself when He says: “No man has ascended into heaven but He who descended from heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven” (John 3:13). By this we are given to understand that He came down from heaven by assuming an earthly nature, yet in such a way that He continued to remain in heaven. The same consideration leads us to conclude that Christ alone has gone up to heaven by His own power. By reason of His origin, that abode belonged by right to Him who had come down from heaven. Other men cannot ascend of themselves, but are taken up by the power of Christ, whose members they have been made.
As ascent into heaven befits the Son of God according to His human nature, so something else is added that becomes Him according to His divine nature, namely, that He should sit at the right hand of His Father. In this connection we are not to think of a literal right hand or a bodily sitting. Since the right side of an animal is the stronger, this expression gives us to understand that the Son is seated with the Father as being in no way inferior to Him according to the divine nature, but on a par with Him in all things. Yet this same prerogative may be ascribed to the Son of God in His human nature, thus enabling us to perceive that in His divine nature the Son is in the Father Himself according to unity of essence, and that together with the Father He possesses a single kingly throne, that is, an identical power. Since other persons ordinarily sit near kings, namely, ministers to whom kings assign a share in governing power, and since the one whom the king places at his right hand is judged to be the most powerful man in the kingdom, the Son of God is rightly said to sit at the Father’s right hand even according to His human nature, as being exalted in rank above every creature of the heavenly kingdom.
In both senses, therefore, Christ properly sits at the right hand of God. And so the Apostle asks, in Hebrew 1: 13: “To which of the angels said He at any time: Sit on My right hand?”
We profess our faith in this ascension of Christ when we say in the Creed: “He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father" (St. Thomas Aquinas, Compendium of Theology, 240).


Ben said...

Dear Boniface,

How would you respond to someone who argued like the following. "To ancient people, God lived in the sky above the clouds, and therefore, the story of Christ's Ascension depends on this pre-scientific view of the heavens". If we were to say that heaven is some kind of alternative dimension, why did the disciples see our Lord moving physically up?

Your befuddled reader,


Boniface said...


That's a great question - I will answer it in a separate post within the next 24 hours (hopefully). There is also some great stuff on this in "Miracles" by C.S. Lewis, who tackles this exact question, though I can't remember the chapter.

Boniface said...

Ben- Did you see I posted the answer to your question???