The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 60, No 3, May-June 2007

Theology for the Laity

The CREED, Part VI

HE ASCENDED INTO HEAVEN
HE WILL COME AGAIN TO JUDGE THE LIVING AND THE DEAD

By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.

       The Creed now leads us to consider Our Savior's Ascension, the event the Acts of the Apostles tells us took place forty days after His Resurrection.

Why Forty Days ?

       We do not have to be Scripture scholars to realize how often the number forty occurs in the Bible. What may be helpful, though, is to ask why the number appears so often. St. Peter Chrysologus (AD 406-450), noted for his preaching while he was Archbishop of Ravenna, offers a good answer to this question. He distinguishes between

    ...the man who with simplicity accepts and follows the sacred mystery of the Christian faith and him who is zealous to grasp the mystery of that faith intelligently and understand it profoundly (Sermon 166).

The Value of Symbols

       This tells us that investigating the tools the Scripture writers employ to relate their accounts allows us better to understand the theological points the writers are striving to make. One of these tools is the language of symbols, which is a sign that helps us to understand the invisible things of GodíŽs kingdom by examining the things of our world. The saint goes on to explain that the

    ...number forty is something so sacred from antiquity, and...is found to be so mystical, that by some unbreakable law it is written as a number which is always used to accomplish divine projects and to explain important affairs of God.

The Value of Forty

       To illustrate this point, St. Peter enumerates several uses of the number forty in the Bible.

    In the unfortunate infancy of the human race, when the world was growing foul with an indescribable squalor...for forty days and forty nights rain was poured out to purify the earth.

       St. Peter then compares the water of the flood to the forty days of Lent, which ends with the Easter promise of Baptism. "Rightly do we run through the fast of forty days to arrive at the font of baptism and salvation" (Sermon 166).

The Forty Days of Easter

       Forty is the number associated with completion of God's designs, so we should not be surprised to find our Risen Savior spending forty days among us, preparing the early Church for its mission to the nations. By remaining among us for forty days after His Resurrection, Jesus helped us to understand that His life was a fulfillment of all God's promises in the Old Testament, and a fulfillment of everything we could hope for.

       Although the account of these forty days takes up only a few chapters of the Scripture, the risen Christ was able to teach His followers a great deal in that time. We have the advantage of reading the gospel "after the fact," knowing how the gospel drama will end; the disciples did not. Jesus used the forty days of Easter to remind His followers what He had taught them, and how all of His signs, miracles, and preaching looked forward to the life in God's kingdom that He came to share with us.

The Heaven of Christ's Ascension

       We are used to thinking of heaven as God's dwelling, a spiritual abode beyond the physical universe that science has explored and described in the last five hundred or so years. However, our picture of the universe does not reflect the belief of the Scriptural writers, or even the great minds of the medieval theologians.

       In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul writes that Christ "...ascended above all the heavens" (Eph. 4:10), and St. Thomas Aquinas interprets these heavens" as three heavenly realms: the earthly paradise Adam and Eve inhabited before their sin, the dwelling of the various ranks of angels, and - finally - the abode of God the Father.

       We may be reluctant to think of heaven in quite such physical terms, so the important fact for us to bear in mind is that when Christ ascended, He returned to a place of honor that is greater than the glory enjoyed by any of God's creatures.

The Right Hand of the Father

       St. Thomas warns us that we should consider Christ's place at the right hand of the Father a metaphor, rather than a physical location. A seat at someone's right is a place of honor, and it denotes equality between the person who sits at the right and the one who confers the honor of sitting there.

Why Did Christ Ascend ?

       The Angelic Doctor teaches three reasons for Our Savior's Ascension. It was a reward, he said, for Christ's nature, a reward for His victory, and recognition of His humility.

  1. The Reward of Christ's Nature

           At the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples, "I came forth from the Father, and...again I leave the world and I go to the Father" (Jn 16:28). St. Thomas remarks that this is no more than we should expect of Christ, because things return naturally to the place where they originate. At His Ascension, Christ - the second person of the Trinity - resumes the glory He enjoyed with the Father from all eternity.

  2. The Power of Christ's Nature

           St. Thomas adds that Christ ascended by His own power. Thus, His reward differs from the glory the saints enjoy, and that we hope to share with them. We reasonably hope to share Christ's everlasting life in heaven, but we will do so because we are drawn there by Christ's power, not our own.

  3. The Reward for Christ's Victory

           Christ came into the world to fight against Satan and sin. Our First Parents' sin closed the gates of heaven, so it was fitting that Christ should be the first to re-enter God's kingdom after He defeated Satan with His death on the cross.

The Reward for Christ's Humility

       The gospel teaches us that "those who humble themselves will be exalted." St. Thomas suggests that the exaltation will be proportionate to the humility. In the Incarnation, God lowered Himself to take on our human nature, and a human body, "being made obedient unto death" (Phil. 2:8). And after His death, He descended into hell. We cannot imagine a greater humility than Christ's. Therefore, He deserves to ascend to the very heights of heaven, to the throne that was His before the creation of the world.

Our Profit from Christ's Ascension

       St. Thomas teaches that humanity benefits from the Ascension because we now know the path that leads to heaven, whereas before Christ's death we did not. At the Last Supper Jesus told His disciples, "I go to prepare a place for you" (Jn 14:2). Christ's Ascension is the fulfillment of this promise.

Our Confidence in the Ascension

       The Letter to the Hebrews tells us Christ lives "...to make intercession for us" (Hb. 7:25), and St. John reminds us, "we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the just" (1 Jn 2:1). Among the other losses we suffered as a result of sin was a loss of hope. When we were exiled from Eden, we had no reason to imagine we would ever be invited back. Christ's Resurrection is a promise that we will rise with Him if we are willing to die with Him; the Ascension is a promise that we will share His glory if we are willing to follow Him along the way of the cross.

The Ascension Restores Our Hope

       "Teacher" is the title by which Jesus is most often addressed in the gospel, and the early Church writers believed that He came among us to teach us - going through every moment of our lives (even the last) to show us what we must do if we want to "get it right."

       In Jesus we see someone who shares our nature, yet doesn't fall prey to the temptations that so often slow our spiritual progress. Jesus' example becomes a source of confidence and hope because when we look at what He did, with a body identical to ours, we realize the greatness we are capable of if we are willing to follow Him.

Christ's Return

       The angels who witnessed Christ's Ascension spoke to those who were left, looking up to the sky. "This Jesus Who is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come, as you have seen Him going into heaven" (Acts 1:11), and the Creed reminds us that when Jesus returns, He will return as judge. He will also return in the flesh with which He was clothed at His Ascension.

The Importance of the Flesh

       St. Thomas reminds us that to see God is a source of such delight that no one can see God without joy. The souls of the damned are deprived of the sight of God precisely because such a vision would make them happy. When Christ returns to judge the world, He will come in human flesh so that He may be seen by all.

       Likewise, were we to be judged by God alone, we could easily lose hope. Therefore, when He comes to judge, Christ will come in our flesh so that we may experience hope from being judged by the hand of one who shares our humanity.

Who Will be Judged?

       "We must be manifested before the judgment-seat of Christ, that everyone may receive... as he hath done" (2 Cor. 5:10). Judgment consists in discussion of merit, and assigning rewards, so our fate hangs on Christ's assessment of how we spend the life entrusted to us.

       However, those whose poverty of spirit led them to seek Christ perfectly will receive the reward promised in the Beatitudes, but their deeds will not be subject to examination, because they so perfectly imitated Christ's. (ST Supp., 89.6). Moreover, these individuals receive a special reward. Jesus promised, "You who followed me...shall sit...judging the twelve tribes" (Matt. 19:28). St. Thomas preached that such (chief among them, the apostles) will share Christ's act of judging by teaching others the justice of their reward.

Reasons to Fear Judgment

       Christ the Judge knows all things, therefore none of our actions is hidden from Him. Moreover, as we stand before the all-truthful Judge, we will be compelled to tell the truth. Therefore, our own consciences will bear witness to what we have done or failed to do. When we are called before the divine tribunal, the time of mercy - St. Thomas' expression to describe the present - will have passed; the judgment is a time solely of justice. Today, with its manifold opportunities to do good, is all that belongs to us. Tomorrow, with its promise of justice belongs to Christ, so meditating on the Day of Judgment ought to bring us to repentance and good works.

Preparation for the Judgment

       In addition to the remedy offered by the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the good deeds that prepare us for the Day of Judgment are the traditional works of mercy, and love of God and our neighbor. These may seem extremely small in comparison to the immensity of God's justice, but Scripture assures us "charity covereth a multitude of sins" (1 Pet. 4:8).

The Promise of Poverty

       When we considered the Beatitudes, we discovered that poverty of spirit differs from financial distress; it is a deliberate choice by which we moderate our attitudes toward the good things the world offers, and the means by which we gain them.

       To be poor in spirit, St. Thomas teaches, is to cultivate the habits of simplicity and moderation that allow us to look beyond what will satisfy us for a short time today, in order to lay claim to a satisfaction without end in the future.

Judgment to Hope , Not Despair

       Parents know that fear of an unpleasant consequence is often a powerful reason for a child to make wise - and safe - choices. This is precisely the reason the psalmist urges us, "fear Him, do not sin" (Ps 4:4). The prospect of God's judgment is terrifying, but for that very reason Christ took on our flesh, that we might understand the nobility our humanity is capable of, and embrace a life that allows us to approach our Judge with confidence.


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