T H E A S C E N S I O N
No one has ever ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven
I. From a sermon by Saint Augustine
Today our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven; let our hearts ascend with him. Listen to the words of the Apostle: If you have risen with Christ, set your hearts on the things that are above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God; seek the things that are above, not the things that are on earth. For just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies.
Christ is now exalted above the heavens, but he still suffers on earth all the pain that we, the members of his body, have to bear. He showed this when he cried out from above: Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? and when he said: I was hungry and you gave me food.
Why do we on earth not strive to find rest with him in heaven even now, through the faith, hope and love that unites us to him? While in heaven he is also with us; and we while on earth are with him. He is here with us by his divinity, his power and his love. We cannot be in heaven, as he is on earth, by divinity, but in him, we can be there by love.
He did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven. The fact that he was in heaven even while he was on earth is borne out by his own statement: No one has ever ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven.
These words are explained by our oneness with Christ, for he is our head and we are his body. No one ascended into heaven except Christ because we also are Christ: he is the Son of Man by his union with us, and we by our union with him are the sons of God. So the Apostle says: Just as the human body, which has many members, is a unity, because all the different members make one body, so is it also with Christ. He too has many members, but one body.
Out of compassion for us he descended from heaven, and although he ascended alone, we also ascend, because we are in him by grace. Thus, no one but Christ descended and no one but Christ ascended; not because there is no distinction between the head and the body, but because the body as a unity cannot be separated from the head.
II. St Thomas Aquinas on the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ
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 pthe 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).