By: Rev. Paul Scalia
Man is the strangest creature – more than an animal, but not quite an angel…created in this world, but made for the next. He seems constantly tugged between these two dimensions of his being, the earthly and heavenly. This tension finds a certain fulfillment (perhaps an exacerbation) in our Lord’s Ascension into heaven and sending of the Holy Spirit. By these two events, which are in effect one, our Lord both ascends and descends. He ascends in His sacred humanity and descends in the power and Person of the Holy Spirit. He ascends to reign with His Father and He descends by the Spirit to “renew the face of the earth” (Ps 104:30). In His earthly body He is glorified in heaven…and in His mystical Body He continues His presence on earth.
Christ’s own ascending and descending establishes a pattern for all Christian living. Like Him, we are to be simultaneously there and here. Thus Scripture exhorts us to set our minds “on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col 3:2), not be “conformed to this world” (Rom 12:2), and remember that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). At the same time, we are to serve others concretely in this world (cf. Mt 25), loving our neighbors as ourselves. The worldly mind sees only a contradiction here – that we cannot possibly do both at once. Our Lord alone makes it possible. He at once reigns in heaven and serves on earth, and He sanctifies us to do the same.
Jacob’s vision prefigures this reality: “[H]e dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!” (Gen 28:12). That constant motion he witnessed is what the Christian strives for in this world. To dwell in heaven and be at the same time fully present on earth. Jesus Himself gives Jacob’s vision the definitive interpretation, applying it to Himself: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (Jn 1:51). To be devoted to Jesus Christ necessarily means such ascent and descent.
So, how do we ascend? We ascend by prayer most of all, directing the thoughts of our minds and the desires of our hearts to God Himself. This means rising from the petty, passing things of this world. And yet we cannot ascend on our own, as Jesus did. We need to be lifted up, to be made to ascend. The Psalmist praises God saying, “He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog” (Ps 40:2). We should ask for a similar grace – that He draw us from the desolation of the world’s thinking and the miry bog of its gossip and banality. Let us ascend: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8).
And how do we descend? By our works of mercy, both spiritual and corporal. Jesus sent His Spirit to animate the Church, making that community of believers His very Body. Through that Body – through our good works – He Himself continues to descend to the poor and despairing, to the ill and forgotten, to the ignorant and doubtful…to all who suffer the wounds of sin. We want, however, not to do one now and then the other.
We want to do both – to both ascend and descend – at once, as one motion. Today begins the Great Novena to the Holy Spirit. Our Lord has ascended, and with Him we are already seated at the right hand of the Father. We now pray fervently for the descent of the Spirit that quickens the Body of Christ, making Him present in the world still. Thus, may we learn to ascend by our thoughts and affections and descend in concrete service.