By Fr Jose LaBoy
There are two main perspectives in the homilies of St. Leo the Great on the Ascension: 1) the Ascension as the glorification of Jesus and our uplifting; 2) the importance of this mystery for Christian living. In this first article we will consider the first perspective and see how what happens to Jesus Christ in the Ascension affects us.
St. Leo always stresses the fact that the liturgical celebration of the mysteries of Christ is the is a real encounter with this mystery being celebrated. Regarding the Ascension he stresses the joy of the apostles upon seeing Jesus go up to heaven:
“The most blessed Apostles and all the disciples, who had been both bewildered at his death on the cross and backward in believing his Resurrection, were so strengthened by the clearness of the truth that when the Lord entered the heights of heaven, not only were they affected with no sadness, but were even filled with great joy”(73, 4).
For him this joy should be the same in members of the Church whenever they celebrate the Ascension in the liturgy, since the source is the same: the Ascension in which human nature (Christ in his humanity and all mankind in him) is elevated to the “heights of the heavens” (cf. Eph 1:20-21).
This means two things: 1) there is an intimate relation between the apostles and Christians of later generations; 2) the celebration of the mysteries of the life of Christ, in this case the Ascension, is not a mere remembering, but an actualization of the mystery. The effect should be the same.
When referring to the event of the Ascension itself, St. Leo, instead of saying that Jesus Christ went up to heaven, he uses the term “nature of mankind” as the subject in his first homily:
“And truly great and unspeakable was their cause for joy, when in the sight of the holy multitude, above the dignity of all heavenly creatures, the nature of mankind went up, to pass above the angels’ ranks and to rise beyond the archangels’ heights, and to have its uplifting limited by no elevation until, received to sit with the Eternal Father, it should be associated on the throne with his glory, to whose nature it was united in the Son.”
In his second homily he uses the expression “nature of our humble condition”.
The fact that St. Leo speaks of “human nature” ascending to heaven can seem to us strange and too abstract, and yet the expression succeeds in expressing the saving power of the Ascension, by stressing the solidarity of Christ, God made man, and all human beings. What St. Leo is saying is that because God has become man through the Incarnation, what happens to him can now happen to all human beings. In other words the Ascension affects Christ primarily: he now enjoys in his human reality a “heavenly condition”. Nevertheless, it also affects us inasmuch as it gives us the possibility to “be where Christ is”, to share in his “heavenly condition”. It is in Christ that humankind is “lifted up”
St. Leo sums up the saving meaning of the Ascension for us in the following words:
“Since then Christ’s Ascension is our uplifting, and the hope of the body is raised, whither the glory of the head has gone before, let us exult, dearly-beloved, with worthy joy and delight in the loyal paying of thanks. For today not only are we confirmed as possessors of paradise, but have also in Christ penetrated the heights of heaven, and have gained still greater things through Christ’s unspeakable grace than we had lost through the devil’s malice. For us, whom our virulent enemy had driven out from the bliss of our first abode, the Son of God has made members of himself and placed at the right hand of the Father” (73, 4)
For St. Leo the real meaning of the liturgy is for the faithful to enter into real contact with the mystery of salvation. We, the body, are called to be where the head is. We could not be able to go to heaven if Christ were not glorified. His Ascension is the direct cause of our uplifting: “I am going to prepare a place for you” (Jn 14:)
St. Leo stresses two main benefits for us that come from Christ’s Ascension. First, “in Christ we have penetrated the heights of heaven”. Because Jesus Christ is in heaven he assures us that we can be there as well. He is our hope. While we are united to him, that is, while we are faithful to our incorporation into Christ thanks to baptism, the path to heaven is assured.
A second benefit is the fact that we receive something greater than the grace humankind had before the fall. Redemption is a greater work than creation. The redemption worked by Christ is not just an expiation for our sins, it brings us to real communion with the Blessed Trinity.
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