The Role and Experience of the Angels at the Ascension

The Feast of the Ascension is often neglected today. It is tucked into a nearby Sunday, it’s role as the fortieth day, jettisoned. But even in those places that still honor it with a Thursday Solemnity, there is still a difficulty in appreciating the full glory of that day. In this post, following the Scriptures and the teaching of some of the ancient Fathers of the Church, we can investigate some of the more hidden glory of this magnificent event.

The fundamental source for these reflections is Jean Cardinal Danielou’s book The Angels and Their Mission: According to the Fathers of the Church. The references to the Fathers in this post are fully footnoted in his book, but some of the scriptural passages below represent my own additions.

We can begin with a parabolic prelude – Jesus told at least two parables that the Fathers of the Church interpret to represent the angels:

    • Then Jesus told them this parable: “What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the pasture and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders, comes home, and calls together his friends and neighbors to tell them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost sheep!’ In the same way, I tell you that there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous ones who do not need to repent. (Luke 15:3-7)
    • Or what woman who has ten silver coins and loses one of them does not light a lamp, sweep her house, and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors to say, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:8-10)

Gregory Nazianzus interprets this parable as Christ entering into heaven at the Ascension and, after having recovered the lost sheep and the Lost Drachma and calling together the angels to share his joy.

Indeed, there is a whole tradition, among the Fathers but going back much further into the early Church which sees the lost sheep as human beings, and flock which the Good Shepherd “leaves” in order to search for the sheep as the angels. Origen sets it forth and Methodius of Philippi writes: “We must see the ninety-nine sheep as a representation of the Powers, Principalities and Dominations whom the Head and Shepherd has left behind to go down and seek out the one lost sheep.”  Gregory of Nyssa adds: “We mankind, are the lost sheep…and have strayed from the other spiritual creates [i.e. the angels].

Hence we are given a picture of joy as Christ re-enters heaven with the lost sheep of humanity.

The Picture of the Ascension given by the Lord: Jesus prophecies his ascension in John’s Gospel as something which Nathaniel will see. The Lord’s description also shows the role of the angels

Jesus said to Nathaniel, “Do you believe just because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” Then He declared, “Truly, truly, I tell you, you will see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. (John 1:50-51)

Here then is a picture of Jesus ascending, not as a lone figure,

A picture from the Psalms: Church Fathers Eusebius, Chrysostom, Justin and Athanasius  say that  the virtues (i.e. angels) of heaven, seeing him begin to ascend, rise and surround him to form an escort proclaiming his ascension as they cried: Rise up eternal gates and the King of glory will enter!” Gregory of Nyssa adds, that at first the higher angels do not recognize Christ since he has put on the poor tunic of humanity and because his garments were stained with blood. And herein comes a questioning and wondering dialogue back and forth that is from Psalm 27 but which the ancient Fathers apply to the moment of the Ascension: 

The lower ranking angels who have escorted Jesus cry out to the higher ranking angles of heaven:

Lift up your heads, O gates! Be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of Glory may enter!

And from within the heavenly angels answer:

Who is this King of Glory?

And the escorting angels answer:

The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O gates! Be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of Glory may enter! (Psalm 24:7-9) 

Eusebius also cites Psalm 47 as fulfilled in the Ascension through the praises of the Angels: 

God ascends amid shouts of joy, the LORD with the sound of trumpets. Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises! For God is King of all the earth; sing profound praises to Him. God reigns over the nations; God is seated on His holy throne. For the shields of the earth belong to God; He is highly to be exalted. (Ps 47:5-9)

Another picture from Scripture (Isaiah 63:1-3) is applied by the Fathers to the Ascension where the angels of heaven, seeing Christ  approach, cry out:

Who is this coming from Edom, from Bozrah with crimson-stained garments? Who is this robed in splendor, marching in the greatness of His strength?

Jesus answers:

“It is I who speak in righteousness, mighty to save.”

The Angels ask:

Why are Your clothes red, and Your garments like one who treads the winepress?

Jesus answers:

“I have trodden the winepress alone, (Isaiah 63:1-3)

The exultation of our humanity In Christ’s Ascension is also a principle developed in Scripture and by the Father.  Thought the angelic nature remains superior to human nature in the order of creation, Christ’s incarnation, resurrection and ascension have exalted our humanity in his. The Book of Hebrews says,

[Jesus] has taken his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high. So He became as far superior to the angels as the name He has inherited is excellent beyond theirs. For to which of the angels did God ever say: “You are My Son; today I have become Your Father” (Heb 1:3-4)

For it is not to angels that He has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But somewhere it is testified in these words: “What is man that You are mindful of him, or the son of man that You care for him? You made him for a while lower than the angels; and now You have crowned him with glory and honor and placed everything under his feet. (Heb 2: 5-8)

These texts speak to Christ’s superiority to the Angels. As God, he was always superior to the angels but, in hypostatically uniting himself to a human nature, raising it gloriously and ascending with that glorified human nature, he has exalted us all.

St. John Chrysostom says of the Ascension: 

Today we are raised up into heaven, we who seemed unworthy even of  earth. [In Christ, and as members of his Body] We are exalted above the heavens; we arrive at the kingly throne. The [human] nature which caused the Cherubim to keep guard over paradise is seated today above the Cherubim. Was not such a glory beyond all expression? But he rose above the angels, he passed the cherubim, he went higher than the Seraphim, he bypassed the Thrones. He didn’t stop until He arrived at the very throne of God.

So, the Feast of the Ascension is our feast too. In baptism we died with Christ and rose with him to new life. In the Ascension of Christ, we also ascend. Hence, in Christ and as members of Christ’s Body through baptism, we are mystically seated with him at the Father’s right. In Christ and by his ascension our lowly nature is glorified and we hear the call “come up higher.” For now we never cease to honor the angels who by nature are superior to us and care for us. And yet, by grace alone and in Christ we have ascended with him to the highest place. On account of  which the angels marvel and sing God’s praises.

The Ascension is the counterpart of the fall in Eden, but we are not simply restored to an earthly paradise, we are taken to the heavenly one!

Is this why Satan rebelled? There is an ancient tradition that the angels where shown God’s plan and that Lucifer, a high ranking angel, recoiled at the idea of God joining himself to the mere “mud dolls” of humanity. Inspiring a rebellion he waged war in the heavens and was cast out by St. Michael and the other angels. Now he roams the earth, deeply envious of human beings and seeks to debase and destroy him. This is hinted at in Scripture in Revelation 12, but the details of the reason for Satan’s wrath are more in the realm of tradition and speculation. 

Here then are some reflections on the glorious feast of the Ascension from Scripture, and the teachings of the Fathers of the Church.

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