It would be a terrible shame if we failed to honor the grand mystery of Our Lord’s Ascension on this Thursday and the remaining days of Paschaltide that follow it, which are, in fact, called Ascensiontide. We may rightly (and literally) consider this the most “uplifting” of all of the Mysteries of the Liturgical Year, for none of them so clearly fixes our gaze on that upward ascent towards Heaven that our souls (and yes, our bodies) are to take if we are to achieve the final purpose of our lives, that is, our salvation.
For this great feast, then, I offer a quartet. (And I don’t mean these guys, either.) The quartet I offer is a series of four reflections on the mystery following something that has become an idée fixe with me lately, the quadriga. Accordingly, each of the four parts of this “quartet” is dedicated respectively to the literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical senses of the Ascension.
Literal. The Epistle for the feast is taken from Acts (1:1-11), which gives us Saint Luke’s account of the event (that same Evangelist also gives us a shorter account at the end of his Gospel). The Gospel for the Mass of Ascension Thursday is the account of Saint Mark (16:14-20). Saints Matthew and John are silent on the mystery in their respective Gospels.
The literal sense, also called the historical sense, is the simple narrative of what happened. It is true, that is, historically accurate; it is also plain from the scriptural accounts. Here, I would like to point out only a couple of things that form the historical narrative. First, the occasion was not one of unalloyed joy. The Apostles had to endure being taken to task by Our Lord just before He ascended: “He upbraided them with their incredulity and hardness of heart, because they did not believe them who had seen him after he was risen again” (Mark 16:14). This last mortification was imposed, no doubt, to humble these men to whom He was about to give the most important mandate ever given, that of evangelizing the entire world.
Second, after they watched Jesus go up till a cloud took Him out of their sight, the Apostles were told by two angels that Jesus would return the same way He had come. This is interpreted by many commentators to mean that Our Lord’s Second Coming will take place on the Mount of Olives (whither He ascended), and that there, He will judge mankind, who will be assembled in that place overlooked by the Mount, the Valley of Josaphat. Saint Thomas, for one, defends the thesis that the General Judgment will take place there, and he cites the Prophecy of Joel to this effect. True, the Scriptures do not say explicitly that Jesus ascended from Mount of Olives, but Saint Luke does tell us that the disciples, “returned to Jerusalem from the mount that is called Olivet” after the event (Acts 1:12), which is fairly definitive. In his Gospel (24:50) Luke also says that Jesus led them “as far as Bethania,” which we know to be “at the base of the southwestern slope of the Mount of Olives,” and so tradition has consecrated Olivet as the place.
Allegorical. Aside from a direct prophesy of the Ascension in Psalms 67:19 (Saint Paul certainly seems to take this as a literal prophecy, anyway), there are various types of this mystery in the Old Testament. Old-Testament types are allegories of Jesus Christ and mysteries closely related to Him. Henoch was mysteriously taken by God. Much more exciting — even divinely pyrotechnic, if you will! — was the going up of Holy Elias. Significantly, these two ascended figures of the Old Testament are named by many commentators as the “two witnesses” of the Apocalypse, of whom such stupendous things are related in that last book of the Bible.
The act of encountering God is frequently portrayed in the Old Testament as a “going up,” or an ascent. This is part of a sacred cosmology — by no means childish or primitive — which has Heaven being “up there,” as Hell is “down there.” Old-Testament pilgrims to Jerusalem recited the “Gradual Psalms,” which are also called “songs of ascent,” because, Biblically, one always “goes up” to Jerusalem. The act of worship itself is frequently portrayed as a going up, as in, “Exalt ye the Lord our God, and adore at his holy mountain: for the Lord our God is holy” (Ps. 98:9). We still begin our Masses with “Send forth thy light and thy truth: they have conducted me, and brought me unto thy holy hill (montem sanctum tuum), and into thy tabernacles” (Ps. 42:3). Saint John of the Cross describes the spiritual life as the “Ascent of Mount Carmel.” Mountains are places where earth rises up to meet Heaven, so they fit in quite nicely with that sacred cosmology already mentioned. Notable encounters with God took place on Mounts Ararat, Sinai, Carmel, Moriah, Zion, and Calvary. Truly, it seems that God loves mountains.
Tropological. Broadly speaking, when we apply what is related in Holy Scripture to ourselves, it is called “tropology,” or the “tropological sense” of the Bible. More narrowly, we call this the “moral sense,” when it is limited to matters of right behavior. How do we apply this mystery to ourselves? As members of Christ’s Mystical Body, we are called, even in this life, to ascend with Him into Heaven. How? The collect for the feast states the case eloquently:
Grant, we beseech thee, O almighty God, that we, who believe that thy only-begotten Son, our Redeemer, ascended this day into heaven, may also dwell there in desire….
Besides this longing for the life of Heaven — to be fulfilled in anagogy, the subject of the last part of our quartet — we may make the sentiments of the Apostles our own. We loved to have Jesus with us during this Paschaltide, when He was so near us in the liturgical texts that speak of His Resurrected life. The symbol of that presence has been the Paschal candle, whose light is dramatically extinguished after the Gospel of the feast is sung. Hence, a hint (just a hint, mind you!) of sadness comes into the feast, as it entails the departure of a loved One. The sadness, though, should be superseded by the joyful hope of an eventual reunion.
Aside from elevating our minds to where our Beloved has gone to prepare a place for us (cf. John 14:2), the mystery also carries with it a sobering challenge. Before He ascended, Jesus gave the Apostles the mandate above mentioned, of evangelizing the world. What that imposes upon us is what it also imposed on the Church: the mission of converting the entire world to the Catholic Faith — not to heresy, not to schism, not to mere monotheism, not to liberal democracy; not to anything short of the Catholic Faith, “whole and undefiled,” to quote the Athanasian Creed.
As long as churchmen put other projects ahead of this divine mandate, the Church will never get out of the present mess. Not only does this mandate of Christ extend to evangelizing the unbaptized peoples of the world and to ending schism and heresy, but it also reaches out to that deeper conversion that is necessary to bring Christian nations to the genuine rule of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King, so that public morals, laws, and customs are brought into line with the supernaturally revealed Faith and morals entrusted to the Church. Our family and social life, even our politics, must be baptized so that we might become a sacral society.
In short, the mission of the Church is to work for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. That is the “tropology” of Our Lord’s command to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
Anagogical. As this word is formed by two Greek words that mean a “leading up,” or “ascent,” we cannot have a more literally anagogical mystery than Our Lord’s Ascension. One might say that this is the anagogical mystery par excellence.
It was the great Dom Marmion who wrote that “in His mysteries, Christ makes but one with us.” He was explaining the “deeper” sense in which, “The mysteries of Jesus have this characteristic, that they are ours as much as they are His.” As baptized members of the Mystical Body, we are part of “the Whole Christ” (Saint Augustine) — “members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones” (Eph. 5:30), in the trenchant words of Saint Paul. Because that is so, we ascend with Jesus Christ. With this in mind, we can make sense of those paradoxical words of Jesus to Nicodemus:
“And no man hath ascended into heaven, but he that descended from heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven.” —John 3:13
In the Incarnation, the Logos descended from Heaven to dwell corporally on earth (cf. Col. 2:9; 2 Cor. 5:19). At the end of His temporal mission, the Man-God ascended into Heaven. Yet the whole time, both as a divine Person who is one of the Trinity and as Man partaking of the Beatific Vision, He can properly be said to be in Heaven. Applied to us, His members, this mystery of Christ’s Ascension continues in time, and will continue till the very consummation of all things — for He is Jacob’s Ladder, and we ascend to Heaven by this divine conduit.
Those challenging words to Nicodemus came in the same conversation where Our Lord had earlier instructed that “master in Israel” about the necessity of Baptism: “Amen, amen I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).
Do you get it? Our ultimate anagogy is to be lead up to Heaven as members of Christ.
And thus ends our quartet. Happy Ascensiontide!