Our Lord’s Ascension: both visible and mysterious
Forty days after Easter, Christ ascended to Heaven. The scene is described in The Acts and in the Gospels of St Mark and St Matthew. It is described in a very sober fashion. Here is how Dom Delatte, abbot of Solesmes, summarises it in his commentary on the Gospels: ‘The Lord set out towards Bethany, with His apostles and disciples, and got as far as the Mount of Olives. There, He raised His arms and blessed them; and as He was blessing them, He left them and was raised up into the sky, in their presence; and soon a cloud hid Him from their sight.’
This Ascension is accompanied with the promise of the coming of the Holy Spirt at Pentecost, and also the promise of the return of Christ at the end of time. ‘They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen Him go into heaven.”’
(Acts 1, 10 – 11)
St Matthew ends his Gospel with the Divine Master’s final admonition: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Here we find several things affirmed:
- The divine origin of all authority;
- The universal (that is to say, Catholic) vocation of the Church. All men, whatever their ethnic origin, or the civilisation to which they belong, are called to be saved by the merits of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ;
- The importance of baptism, in the name of God, one and three: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in order to be saved;
- The power to teach and govern the people of Christ and their successors;
- The divine help of Christ for the Church, until the end of time.
In raising His eyes to Heaven, Jesus opens the way to us, and shows us the path. He reminds us that the vocation of man is first of all supernatural, that it is to join Him in Heaven.
The Christian’s desire for Heaven ought to be the primary motivation of his earthly life.
Man is not simply one more step in a materialist evolution, an unlikely juncture of chance and necessity. If he were, what would be the origin of his dignity, which sets him apart from, and raises him above, all other created species? Man was created by God, in order to share in His eternal happiness, as St Ignatius of Loyola wrote in the ‘Principles and Foundations’ of his acclaimed Spiritual Exercises. ‘Man is created to praise, honour and serve God, our Lord, and by that means, to save his soul. And all the other things on earth were created because of man, to help him in the pursuit of the end for which God had destined him, at the time of his creation.’
In the fable of the fox and the goat, La Fontaine suggests this moral to his readers: ‘In all things, consider your ultimate goal.’ After having allowed the fox to climb on his horns, in order to escape the well into which they had both descended to quench their thirst, the goat finds himself abandoned there by his companion. Whoever simply satisfies the desires of a moment, without looking further than the nose on his face, risks paying for it with a tragic death.
Let us never forget the goal for which we are put on this earth. We are here in order to gain heaven. The end goal of earthly life, for each and every one of us, is to gain access to heaven.
That is why St Ignatius continues: ‘Desire and choose only those things which will lead us most surely to the end for which we were created.’
God, who created us out of love, and wants us to share in the Trinity’s life of love, has given us this earthly life so that we may freely respond to His love. That love, after an often necessary period of purification in Purgatory, will be enjoyed throughout eternity.
This supernatural vocation of man explains why the simple satisfaction of his social and political needs always leaves him unsatisfied. ‘You made us for yourself, O my God, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.’ St Augustine exclaimed; and he had experimented with the abuse of both flesh and spirit. The frenetic search for the satisfaction of the senses, for the exercise of power, or for celebrity status, constitute and endless path which often leads to moral and physical dissolution, bitterness, remorse and even suicide. For it is true that the destiny of man is far above this earthly life, which is no more, finally, than a fleeting journey, a vale of tears, as we sing in the Salve Regina.
One of the paradoxes of this earthly sojourn, however, is that despite its brevity, the eternal destiny of each man depends on it. If it is important not to attach ourselves excessively to this ephemeral phase, we must also not lose sight of the fact that the eternal destiny of each and every one of us depends on it. The 20, 30, 40… 90 or 100 years of our earthly life set the terms for our life in eternity, about which a lyrical preacher had this to say on a spiritual retreat: Imagine that once a century, an eagle brushed a mountain with the very tip of his wing; When, as a result of this delicate brushing, the mountain had been totally worn away, eternity would not, in fact, even have started properly…
That shows us the importance of our time on earth, and how much attention we should pay to the organisation of civic society, the City of Man, in order to prepare ourselves for entry into the City of God.
City of Man and City of God
God, who loves each one of us individually, awaits our personal response to His love. The political organisation of society ought to favour the peaceful observance of what Christ commanded, the essentials of which are summarised in the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes. The role of laws which regulate civil society are essential in this regard. Pius XII was fully justified when he wrote, on the fiftieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, in 1941: The good or harm of souls is affected by the form society takes, and the degree to which it conforms, or fails to do so, to the Divine Law. That is to say, it is a fact that men, called to be vivified by the grace of Chirst, either breathe in their everyday lives the healthy and life-giving air of the moral virtues, or the morbid and often fatal atmosphere of error and depravity.’
The Church, which has a care for the health of souls, must always take an interest in the organisation of civil society. She strives to reduce the ‘structures of sin’ (John Paul II) which turn people away from observing the natural law, and thus place the health of all in grave danger. When abortion is free, and the morning after pill given out freely, it takes great generosity and great faith to welcome an unplanned birth, which typically represents a reduction of 20% of the economic standard of living of each family.
In the face of modern society, and the deadly dreams of utopia which animate it, or rather undermine it, the Church recalls three essential truths:
1 Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matthew, 4: 4) To reduce man simply to a producer or consumer, denying both his spiritual and his supernatural dimensions, is to deform reality, and risk grave consequences. Centuries ago, Aristotle was already teaching: ‘We misunderstand man, if we only allow him to be human.’
2 Salvation is personal, and is the responsibility of each individual. The Socialist state, which seeks to make all men happy, almost automatically, by promising to meet his material needs if he will only surrender his personal freedom, is by its nature, the basis for a totalitarian society, which we can confirm by a simple observation of the reality. ‘No liberty for the enemies of liberty’ as St Just said in his own time…
3 Even when animated by the spirit of the Gospel, the City of Man, made up of sinful men, will always be sullied by original sin and by personal sins. Even in Christendom, evil exists. Gilles de Rais, Marshall of France, condemned to death in 1440 by an ecclesiastical court, on charges of heresy, sodomy, and the murder of ‘140 children or more’ was a brave and loyal companion of Saint Joan of Arc. Pretending to make the City of Men into a new paradise is always an imposture, and often an open door to the very worst horrors. ‘Society becomes Hell, the minute we try to make a Paradise out of it’ wrote Gustave Thibon, the wise peasant-philosopher of the Ardèche. Nonetheless, that should not discourage Christians from seeking to, as Bossuet put it, ‘widen the road to heaven.’ When the growing flood of injustices permitted, and even at times encouraged, by the civil law, seems to carry all before it, forcing each person who is faithful to his vocation as a man and as a baptised Christian to humble heroism in domestic and daily virtues, when our cup seems full, we take refuge in the reflections of that holy religious, who suffered so much for the Church, Padre Pio, St Pio of Pietrelcina: ‘Be careful that the sad spectacle of human injustice doesn’t trouble your soul; it too has a place in the economy of things. It is over human injustice that you will see the certain triumph, one day, of the Justice of God.’
Building a Christian City, the better to prepare souls for eternal life
The construction of a Christian society which will help souls to gain eternal life rests on three foundations:
• Willingness: Do we or do we not want civil law to conform to the natural law, which is another name for the divine law? Have we made our own, that resolution of the psalmist, which the Church gives us to pray on the occasion of the commemoration of the beheading of John the Baptist? He was killed for reminding Herod of the scandal of his union with his sister-in-law Herodias, while her husband was still alive, and the psalm at Mass that day is “I will speak of thy testimonies also before kings, and will not be ashamed. And I will delight myself in thy commandments, which I have loved.”
• A real knowledge of what we are seeking to promote, as well as knowing the teachings, organizations and people who are opposed to the genuine common good of society. In his first encyclical, on 4 October 1903, ‘E supremi apostolatus’ St Pius X denounced (and this was a century ago – what would he say today?) religious ignorance. ‘The principal means of bringing souls to God’s empire, is religious instruction. How many are hostile to, or horrified by, the Church and the Gospel more out of ignorance than out of malice.’ Pius XII, (in his Allocution to Italian Catholic Action, 29 April 1945) affirmed of the Social Doctrine of the Church: ‘It is clear in all its aspects; it is obligatory; nothing can be removed from it without danger both to the Faith and to the moral order.’ Yet what do we know of that social doctrine of the Church, even though it has been explicated by numerous pontifical texts, from Rerum Novarum (Leo Xlll – 1891) to Caritas in Veritate (Benedict XVl – 2009)?
• a true political prudence which, making an effort, according to the formula of Cardinal Richelieu “to make possible what is necessary” will take into account the reality of contemporary society to gradually extricate it from the ruts into which modern ideologies have condemned it: ideologies such as liberalism, socialism, ecologism, consumerism… The objective of the (sometimes necessary) horse medicine is not to kill the horse!
The conformity to natural law of our laws and institutions constitutes the oxygen which our lungs need in order to accomplish their function, the landscape in which the flowers of Christianity may bloom: Christian families, priestly and religious vocations; works of the spirit, such as literature, painting, music; works of charity in service of the poorest and weakest, for it is a Utopian dream to imagine that they will not always be with us, and in addition - economic prosperity.
That is the high calling to which the laity of the 21st century are summoned. And we would do well to meditate on the prophecy of the Dante, in the Divine Comedy: ‘The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in a time of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.’
Let us not fail to respond to the call of the Church and the Popes, so that France may flourish, and Christendom rise again!