Setting Our Hearts on Heaven: St Leo the Great on the Saving Mystery of the Ascension (II) 2

By Fr Jose LaBoy, LC

Fr Jose LaBoy

Vocation to heaven

St. Leo’s second homily on the Ascension is centered on the bodily absence of Christ from this world, which is a necessary consequence of his “going up” to heaven, and its importance for Christian living. What stands out in this homily is the positive interpretation he gives of this reality and how it is exactly because Christ cannot be seen that we can know him as he truly is and set our minds and hearts on him in heaven.

He was well aware that the task of a theologian is not only to deepen into the truths of the faith, but also to help us to live these truths to the point that we can appropriate them and let them change our lives. That is why St. Leo dedicates a whole section of his homily to exhort his listeners to value their vocation to heaven, which is the central aspect of what we can call a spirituality of the Ascension.

He states:

“And so, dearly-beloved, let us rejoice with spiritual joy, and let us with gladness pay God worthy thanks and raise our hearts’ eyes unimpeded to those heights where Christ is. Minds that have heard the call to be uplifted must not be pressed down by earthly affections, they that are fore-ordained to things eternal must not be taken up with the things that perish” (74, 5).

This text reflects St. Leo’s constant insistence that the liturgical celebration is the best setting in order to enter into contact with the mysteries of Christ. In this case, in order to renew the awareness of our call to heaven, since the liturgical celebration is the best setting to “fix the eyes of our soul” on Christ.

It is not easy, in this world, to have our hearts and minds set on heaven. There are many obstacles. The biggest being our attachment to wordly pleasures. It is precisely our effort to detach ourselves from these that manifests our awareness of our call to heaven. If Christians are wayfarers in this world they cannot afford to fix their sight merely on earthly goods.

Being in contact with Christ through faith, hope and charity

It is impossible to set our mind on Christ who is “seated at the right hand of the Father” if we do not deeply practice the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. That is why St. Leo stresses them in his homilies when referring to God’s plan of salvation:

“On which providential order of events we are founded and built up, that God’s grace might become more wondrous, when, notwithstanding the removal from men’s sight of what was rightly felt to command their awe, faith did not fail, hope did not waver, love did not grow cold” (74, 1).

He dedicates a great part of his homily to the virtue of faith. It is exactly because we cannot see Christ that we can be justified by faith. Christ went up to heaven, he “disappeared” remaining present but invisible, so that we might attain the grace of those who believe without seeing. He firmly states that “it is the strength of great minds and the light of firmly-faithful souls, unhesitatingly to believe what is not seen with the bodily sight, and there to fix one’s affections whither you cannot direct your gaze” (74, 1).

St. Leo goes beyond explaining the faith as believing what you cannot see, he goes on to express what the apostles began to believe, which is what we should believe:

“For they had lifted the whole contemplation of their mind to the Godhead of him that sat at the Father’s right hand, and were no longer hindered by the barrier of corporeal sight from directing their mind’s gaze to that which had never quitted the Father’s side in descending to earth, and had not forsaken the disciples in ascending to heaven” (74, 3).

They began to believe in a more profound way in the divinity of that exceptional man they had known and lived with: “A better instructed faith then began to draw closer to a conception of the Son’s equality with the Father without the necessity of handling the corporeal substance in Christ” (74, 4).

In his first homily, St. Leo based our hope on the doctrine of the mystical body of Christ. Because through baptism we are inserted into Christ we are called to be where he is. Our hope, thanks to the mystery of the Ascension is getting to where Christ is. Hope is the virtue that keeps us geared towards heaven.

Since there are many obstacles and temptations from the evil one, St. Leo gives us the key on how to get there when he stresses the importance and total necessity of the virtue of charity: “Let us then, dearly beloved, resist this pestilential evil and follow charity, without which no virtue can flourish, that by this path of love whereby Christ came down to us, we to may mount up to him” (74, 5).

St. Leo helps us heed St. Paul’s exhortation to “if then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth” (Col 3:1).

Let us live a deep spirituality of the Ascension by believing in the divinity of Christ, hoping unfailingly that we will be with him in heaven and imitating Christ in his charity. Let us not give up in our fight against the odds since Christ is telling us: “I will give the victor the right to sit with me on my throne, as I myself first won the victory and sit with my Father on his throne” (Rev 3:21).

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[Photo-Credit: Jesus’ Ascension, Copyright © Laura Tyco]

2 comments

  1. Thank you for a beautiful and thought-provoking post. Even after 1600+ years passing since they were first spoken, these words resonate with me. I particularly was struck by these words of St. Leo: “that which had never quitted the Father’s side in descending to earth, and had not forsaken the disciples in ascending to heaven” (74, 3).

    Your reflections further opened up and enhanced this timeless message.

    • Thank you for reading. The doctrine of the Fathers of the Church has not always been taken seriously or developed further. Much of it is “new”.

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