I wonder if many of us have pondered the great glory of this feast for humanity. For indeed, as Jesus enters into the highest heavens and into the Holy of Holies, unto the very throne of God, He goes there just as God (which He had always done) but also as man. Mystically, we, as members of His Body, go there with Him. Not even many of the angelic choirs are so close to the throne, and none of them sit at the Father’s right hand! Scripture says,
After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”? Or again, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son”? And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him” (Heb 1:4-6).
Another passage from the Feast of the Ascension says,
Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made by hands, a copy of the true one, but heaven itself,
that he might now appear before God on our behalf….Therefore, brothers and sisters, since through the blood of Jesus we have confidence of entrance into the sanctuary by the new and living way he opened for us through the veil…and our bodies washed in pure water (Heb 9:24-25).
Again, I wonder if many Catholics realize the astonishing reality that in Christ, and as members of His Body, we ascend to a place in Heaven so high that even many of the angels stand back in awe.
By way of explanation, let’s recall some teachings on Heaven, God, and the angels.
According to Sacred Tradition and the teaching of the Fathers, the inner life of the Trinity is not a mere static vision of the three persons for one another. The inner life of the Trinity is a movement of love. The Father loves the Son; the Son loves the Father; the Holy Spirit processes between them in this great movement, which the Greek Fathers call the divine perichoresis, a kind of dance of love.
And the angels are arranged around God in ranks or choirs, somewhat like concentric circles. They, too, take up the dance of love, passing love and revelation from God through each rank or choir out to us and all creation, and then back again. Yes, here is the great dance, the perichoresis. God’s inner love, radiating out to angels, then down through their ranks to us, and then from us back through them to God.
The nine choirs (ranks) of angels are divided into three tiers or triads, each with specific concerns.
- The Highest Tier: Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones – who concern themselves with contemplating the glory of God. It is the six-winged seraphim who sing the Sanctus, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of Hosts” (Isaiah 6:3).
- The Middle Tier: Dominations, Virtues, and Powers – who are known as the “angels of creation” because they concern themselves with the ordering of the cosmos and the causes of things.
- The Lowest Tier: Principalities, Archangels, and Angels – who concern themselves with the minute ordering of the universe and with specific causes, including the welfare of people. Each human being, each church, and each country has a Guardian Angel.
Thus the Gloria in Excelsis, sung on Christmas night, is not just a hymn of praise; it is a dance and a passing of information down through the chain of angelic choirs. The highest choirs of angels descended with the Word made Flesh, Jesus, because it is their role to surround Him with perpetual adoration.
The Church Father Origen has those higher angels saying, “If He has put on mortal flesh, How can we remain, doing nothing!? Come Angels, let us descend from heaven!” That is why [Scripture says] there was a multitude of the heavenly Hosts praising and glorifying God when Christ was born. Everything is filled with angels (Hom in Ex. 1:7).
And so at Jesus’ birth, the Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones signaled to the lower angels, “This is He, who is Lord of all Creation; He who is ever to be adored and glorified.” The lower angels take up the information and cry out, “Glory to God in the highest.”
Another Church Father, Pseudo-Dionysius, says of this great heavenly hymn, The highest order composed of Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones, and which is closest of all, by reason of its dignity, to the secret sanctuary of God [instructs] the second order, composed of Dominations, Virtues and Powers. This order in turn reveals the mysteries to the lower tier of angels the Principalities, Archangels and Angels who are set in charge of the human hierarchies (Hier Ceol. 9,2).
And thus at Christ’s birth, the great Gloria in Excelsis resounds on the earth and in the heavens. The angels receive the good news along with us! An ancient hymn from the Liturgy of St. James says of this moment,
Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the powers of hell may vanish
as the shadows clear away.
Why all this music at the divine descent? Because both the music (Gloria in Excelsis) and the descent are related to another song that is meant to lead us even higher. Christ descends to one song in order to lead us to an even nobler and higher song. And this brings us to His Ascension and ours. Without this descent and this first song, the second song and our ascent are impossible.
And what is this new song and place? Isaiah heard the music and saw the place:
I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke of incense (Isaiah 6:1-5).
Here is our new song, a higher song, one sung only in the highest heavens before the throne of God, one sung only by the redeemed: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of Hosts! And thus at every Mass, Jesus our High Priest, speaking through His ministerial priest, says, “Lift up your hearts.” The congregation replies, “We have lifted them up to the Lord.” In other words, we are told to come up higher, to come into the Holy of Holies in Heaven, to come before the throne and sing the hymn of the highest in Heaven.
Our ascent to this highest place is made possible only by the Lord’s descent to the lowest places: the manger, the cross, and Sheol. In the early Church, only the baptized were permitted to sing the Sanctus at Mass. The unbaptized were not allowed to attend the later portion of Mass. The catechumens, though permitted to sing the hymn of the lower heavens (the Gloria), were dismissed prior to the singing of the Sanctus, the song of the higher heavens. Only when we are caught up higher by grace can we hear and join in the Sanctus. And one day it will be fully our song, when God, who descended, says to us, “Come up higher.” And then, by Him who descended, we will ascend and sing a new song to the Lord!
Yes, the Lord descends to one song, that we might ascend to a new song in a new place: in the highest heavens.
Do you see the glory of the Ascension? The Lord goes into the Holies of Holies, but He does not ascend alone. He takes with him multitudes (see Eph 4:8) who had awaited His coming and whom He awoke in Sheol. He preaches the Gospel to those who awaited Him: “Awake, O Sleeper, and Christ will give you light” (See Eph 5:14). As He ascends, He leads a host of those who had been captives in Sheol. And because the ascension transcends time, He also leads us there! Although we do not always experience it now, mystically, we who are faithful are already seated with Christ in glory at the Father’s right hand. For there is only one Body of Christ (Unus Christus, amans seipsum (One Christ, loving himself)) and His Father.
As He goes, the cry goes up through the ranks of heavenly angels, Lift up your heads, O gates, And be lifted up, O ancient doors, That the King of glory may come in! Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, He is the King of glory (Ps 24:9-10).
Yes, here is a magnificent ascension for the Lord and for us in the Lord. For in saving us, God did not merely restore us to an earthly paradise, but to a heavenly one. Indeed, he restored us to a paradise in the highest heavens, in the Holy of holies. God’s condescension, and later ascension, leads us to a place even higher than we were before. Such a grace! So undeserved by us, yet merited by Christ! Your love, Lord, is lifting me higher, than I’ve ever been lifted before!
Ascend with the Lord!