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Ascension & Sovereignty

Today is one of the most downplayed and overlooked major feasts on the liturgical calendar of the Church: the Ascension of Our Lord. Falling between the major feasts commemorating the Resurrection and Pentecost, it has a tendency to be overshadowed. Yet it's of no less significance and has essential themes that we ought not overlook.

Thematically the feast of the Ascension acts as a kind of parallel to the two feasts of the Incarnation: the Annunciation and Christmas. In those feasts we celebrate Christ's descent from heaven, uniting himself to human flesh and coming into the world for our salvation; in the feast of the Ascension, Christ takes up the human flesh He has united Himself to and enters into heaven, and sits down at the right hand of the Father. St. Paul writes of this two-fold movement that "He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things."1

The God-man Jesus Christ, having taken on particularity, had yet to fill all things with His incarnate self. His descent into Hades on Holy Saturday completes the downward movement, even unto the lowermost depths, and his ascension completes the upward movement begun with his Resurrection from the dead. St. Gregory Palamas articulates the movements this way:

Neither an angel nor a man, but the Incarnate Lord Himself came and saved us, being made like us for our sake while remaining unchanged as God. In the same way as He came down, without changing place but condescending to us, so He returns once more, without moving as God, but enthroning on high our human nature which He had assumed. It was truly right that the first begotten human nature from the dead (Rev. 1:5) should be presented there to God, as firstfruits from the first crop offered for the whole race of men.2

St. Leo the Great, that magnificent Pope of Rome of the fifth century, contrasts the Apostles' reactions to Christ's Passion (wherein they were scattered, lost) and Resurrection (when they were still bewildered, confused), with their reaction to Christ 'leaving' them again in the Ascension (wherein they rejoiced), concluding:

[The Apostles] 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 He Whom had never quit the Father's side in descending to earth, and had not forsaken the disciples in ascending to heaven.3

This enthronement of the God-man, ascended beyond the ranks of the angels and archangels, is the celebration of sovereignty par excellence. The authority with which Adam reigned in the garden, having been given dominion over the earth, was a foretaste of the reign established in the Ascension. In the Fall, man's nature as priestly mediator between the seen and unseen world, between the worlds of matter and spirit, between the created and the Uncreated, was disrupted and thrown into disorder. Christ, the second Adam, came to restore this role in Himself. This restoration is completed by Christ in the Ascension, which yields the sending of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

The presence of man, flesh and blood, on the throne of the universe is the foundation of all legitimate sovereignty in the Christian era. The sovereign of the household partakes of Christ's sovereignty as he imitates, and unites himself to, Christ. Similarly, the sovereign ruler of the state submits himself to the reign of Christ manifested through the Spirit's activity in the Church. The reign of the Ascended Lord is the template and basis for sovereignty in all the subsidiary spheres of life. If we are to understand how power and sovereignty are to be justly wielded, and rightly submitted to, we first have to contemplate the foundation for the principle of sovereignty.

God has always ruled supreme, but the incarnate God has been given authority over the earth to judge the nations, through his death and resurrection, and elevates the dignity of man to the highest level imaginable opening the path for direct participation in his reign. When we receive Christ's body and blood in the Eucharist, it's his glorified and ascended body which we consume. If we follow the same path to the throne that he took, namely the path of humble, self-effacing sacrifice, we can also follow the path which he blazed through the heavens.

[T]oday 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.4

Christ's reign is explicitly shared with the saints. "Do ye not know the saints will judge the world?"5 And we are called to become worthy possessors of this dignity by cooperation with God's grace, which shines from his heavenly throne. In a time of much darkness, when earthly kingdoms are shaken mightily and tossed by the tempests of this life, let us take solace in the fact that the King of all has crushed evil underfoot and—even in the midst of chaos—the heights of glory are now accessible to us by way of his glorious Ascension. God has gone up with a shout!6

  1. Eph. 4:10.

  2. St. Gregory Palamas, Homily 21 On the Ascension.

  3. St. Leo the Great, On the Lord's Ascension II.

  4. St. Leo the Great, On the Lord's Ascension I.

  5. 1 Cor. 6:2

  6. Ps. 47:5.

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