The 'Legenda Aurea' on the Ascension
With a certain Scholastic clarity and the confidence of faith, the Dominican bishop, Blessed Jacobus de Voragine, who wrote the famous 'Golden Legend' in the 13th century presents a veritable treatise on the manner and where and why of the Lord's Ascension. His writing on the Solemnity which we celebrate today seeks to provide sound answers to the questions that may arise in relation to this day.
Perhaps like the "men of Galilee" who looked up bewildered and uncomprehending as the Lord was taken from their sight, I too tend to find myself asking questions about how the Lord ascended and where did He go, how high did He ascend; the material and physical aspects of this event, quite apart from the theological significance of the Ascension, fascinates me somewhat! It is an event that has clearly aroused the imagination of artists too: Although the Lord is often shown serenely lifting off into the heavens (as above, in this window from the Hawkesyard Priory church), in earlier representations one often sees just a crowd of upturned faces looking at two pierced feet or just these sacred feet dangling from a cloud.
As such, following are extracts from 'The Golden Legend' in which some questions are given and Bl James' answers for them. I find a perusal of his work is always interesting, delightful to the imagination and edifying to one's faith. Thus, even if we don't physically ascend into the heavens today, let at least our minds soar and reach for the heights with thoughts such as these:
"Regarding the place from which Christ ascended, Sulpicius, bishop of Jerusalem, says, and the 'Gloss' also says, that when a church was built [on the Mount of Olives] later on, the spot where Christ had stood could never be covered with pavement; and more than that, the marble slabs placed there burst upwards into the faces of those who were laying them. He also says that footmarks in the dust there prove that the Lord had stood on that spot: the footprints are discernible and the ground still retains the depressions his feet had left.With such thoughts as these, we rejoice with the angels, we praise God with song and we cry aloud: "God goes up with shouts of joy! The Lord ascends with trumpet blast! Alleluia!"
On the second point, namely, why Christ waited forty days to ascend to heaven... the first was to provide sure evidence of his resurrection from the dead... The second reason was the consolation of the apostles, because the divine consolations are more abundant than our trials... thirdly, there was a mystical meaning involved... the ratio of day to hour is manifest from the fact that the Lord lay dead for forty hours, a time of tribulation, and, rising from the dead, appeared to the disciples over forty days for their consolation...
The third question concerned the manner of his ascension. First of all he ascended powerfully, because he did so by his own power, as we read in Isa. 63:1 'Who is this that cometh from Edom... walking in the greatness of his strength?' and John 3:13: 'No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven.' Admittedly he ascended in a globe of cloud, but he did not do this because he needed the help of a cloud but to show that every creature was ready to serve its creator... Secondly he ascended openly, because the disciples were there to observe it, according to Acts 1:9... He willed to have them see him ascending so that they would be on hand as witnesses of his ascension, would rejoice that a human being was carried up into heaven , and would to follow him there. Thirdly he went up joyfully, because the angels were jubilant... Fourthly, he went up swiftly, as Ps. 18:6b says: 'He has rejoiced as a giant to run the way'. He must have ascended with great speed, since he traversed such a distance, as it were in a moment... So it was a great leap that Christ made from earth to heaven; and about this leap and some others that Christ made, Ambrose says as follows: 'By a leap Christ came into this world: he was with the Father and came into the Virgin and leapt from the Virgin to the manger, went down into the Jordan, went up to the cross, went down to the tomb, rose out of the tomb, and is seated at the Father's right hand.'
As to the fourth point, namely, with whom Christ ascended, let it be known that he ascended with a great catch of people and a great multitude of angels. That he took a catch of men with him is obvious from what Ps. 68:18 says: 'Thou didst ascend the high mount, leading captives in thy train.'...
On the fifth point - by what merit Christ ascended - be it known that it was by a threefold merit, about which Jerome says this: 'Because of truth, since you fulfilled what you promised; because of meekness, since you are sacrificed like a sheep for the life of the people; because of justice, since you delivered man not by power but by justice; and your right hand, in other words, power and virtue, will lead you wondrously - i.e., up to heaven.' (cf Ps 44:5).
The answer to the sixth question, namely, where Christ ascended to, is that he rose above all the heavens, according to what we read in Eph. 4:8-10: 'He that descended is the same also that ascended above all the heavens that he might fulfill all things.' The text says 'above all the heavens' because there are several heavens - the material, the rational, the intellectual and the supersubstantial - beyond which he ascended...
Regarding the seventh question, namely, why Christ ascended, it is to be noted that his ascension was fruitful or beneficial in nine ways. The first is that it brought down the love of God upon us... The second fruit is our greater knowledge of God... The third benefit is the merit of faith... for this is the strength of great minds - to believe without hesitating things that the eye of the body cannot see, and to fix desire on what you cannot reach by sight... The fourth fruit is our security. Christ ascended in order to be our advocate with the Father... The fifth benefit is our dignity. Very great indeed is our dignity when our nature is exalted to the right hand of God!... The sixth fruit of the Lord's ascension is the strengthening of our hope... on this, [Pope] Leo [the Great] again: 'Christ's ascension is our elevation, and where the glory of the head has gone before, there the hope of the body tends also.' The seventh benefit is that the way is marked out for us... The eighth fruit is the opening of the gate of heaven; for as the first Adam opened the gates of hell, so the second the gates of paradise... The ninth is the preparation of the place; John 14:2: 'I go to prepare a place for you'..."