We often favor teams that struggle as we do individuals who persevere in their efforts in any area despite their challenges. Why do their successes make us happy? Surely, we are happy for them because we felt sympathy for their struggles but there is something more. Their successes confirm our instinct that the efforts of those who strive to do what is good and right, despite overwhelming challenges, are not futile but should lead to victory, small or great, personal or public.
Jesus’ life was a struggle to fulfill the Father’s will, despite the obstacles, culminating in His death. His Resurrection and Ascension are the ultimate victory, not only over the sin of the world but over the final enemy, death.
We vicariously rejoice in Jesus’ victory, as the friend of each of us, but does His victory affect our own difficulties? St. Thomas Aquinas asks whether the Ascension is Jesus’ personal victory or, by extension, ours as well.
According to Thomas, the victory of Jesus is also our victory. We might think of the best of our political persons, who use their elections for the benefit of society. Jesus’ exaltation benefits us.
Although Christ’s bodily presence was withdrawn, Christ continues to act upon us. Thomas asserts, “the presence of His divinity is ever with the faithful” (3a. 57, 1 ad 3). Jesus told the apostles: “Behold I am with you even to the consummation of the world” (Mt 28:20).
Thomas declares: “Christ’s Ascension into heaven, whereby He withdrew His bodily presence from us, was more profitable for us than His bodily presence would have been” (3a. 57, 1 ad 3). If we had our choice, we might very well prefer that Jesus remain with us in a physical way.
Thomas states that Jesus’ ascended “in order to increase our faith.” Jesus told the apostle Thomas, “Blessed are those who do not see and yet believe” (Jn 20:29). We believe in Jesus’ presence without seeing.
The Ascension “uplifts our hope.” Jesus declares: “If I go, I will prepare a place for you, I will come again and I will take you with Me that where I am, you also may be” (Jn 14:3). Thomas comments: “By placing in heaven the human nature which He assumed, Christ gave us the hope of going there” (3a. 57, 1 ad 3).
It makes a great deal of difference to us whether we continue to live after death. When a person dies, we comfort each other with words, such as “She’s at peace” or “He is with his wife.” These words rise from the same instinct that wants to see justice in human affairs, a reward at the end of the race. In other words, if life continues after death, there is a meaning to the project of each human life. Life doesn’t just abruptly end, like an extinguished candle. The Ascension is the ultimate assurance of life after death.
Thomas asserts that the Ascension “directs the fervor of our charity to heavenly things” (3a. 57, 1 ad 3). The Letter to the Colossians instructs: “Seek the things that are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Mind the things that are above, not the things of earth” (Col 3:1-2).
Should we be oblivious to the concerns of everyday life? Gaudium et Spes, the document on “The Church and the Modern World” of the Second Vatican Council makes it very clear that Christians have a responsibility to contribute to making the world a better place for all. With our minds set on what is above, we interact with each other and with creation, measuring the lives and efforts of each person by an eternal value, not according to their usefulness to our own short term agendas.
The Holy Spirit leads us beyond our own restricted vision, as Thomas affirms: “Since the Holy Spirit is love drawing us up to heavenly things, the Lord said: ‘It is expedient for you that I go; for if I do not go, the Paraclete will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you’” (Jn 16:7) (3a. 57, 1 ad 3).
Thomas recalls the words of Augustine: “You cannot receive the Spirit, so long as you persist in knowing Christ according to the flesh. When Christ withdrew in body, not only the Holy Ghost, but both Father and Son were present with them spiritually” (Treatise on the Gospel of John, 94).
Through the Ascension, we draw a greater appreciation of Jesus: “Our reverence for Him is increased, since we no longer deem Him and earthly man but the God of heaven” (3a. 57, 6). Paul makes a similar statement: “Even if we once judged Christ by human standards, we do so no longer” (2 Cor 5:16).
While the Ascension increases our faith, hope, charity and appreciation of Jesus, did the Resurrection and Ascension contribute to our salvation, as the Passion and death of Jesus did? It may seem that the Resurrection and Ascension are the finale or the reward given to the Son by the Father for His Passion and death.
St. Thomas states: “Christ’s Passion was a sufficient and a superabundant atonement for the sin and the debt of the human race… Christ made satisfaction… by bestowing what was of the greatest price – Himself – for us” (3a. 48, 4).
Did the amount of Jesus’ sufferings atone for us? Thomas answers: “This voluntary enduring of the Passion was most acceptable to God, as coming from charity. Therefore Christ’s Passion was a true sacrifice” (3a. 48, 3). The sacrifice was the offering of Himself, as was said, through voluntarily enduring of the Passion with love.
According to Thomas, the Divinity is the cause that brings about our salvation but the humanity of Christ plays an important role because Jesus’ human will and love are offered to the Father: “Compared with the will of Christ’s soul, it acts in a meritorious manner, considered as being within Christ’s very flesh, it acts by way of satisfaction” (3a. 48, 6, ad 3).
Thomas explains that God is the principle efficient cause of our salvation. In other words, the divinity brought about our salvation. But Christ’s humanity is also a factor. Jesus’ humanity is the “instrumental cause,” the means used by God for our salvation, “The human nature is the instrument of the Divine action” (3a. 43, 2).
In a similar way all of Christ’s human actions contribute to salvation: “Since Christ’s humanity is the instrument of the Godhead, therefore all Christ’s actions and sufferings operate instrumentally in virtue of His Godhead” (3a. 48, 6).
The humanity of Christ is an important consideration when speaking of the Resurrection and Ascension. Thomas does not say that the Resurrection or Ascension merits our salvation and yet they have a particular effect on us.
Thomas explains that “Christ’s Resurrection is the cause or our resurrection” (3a. 56, 1). Paul proclaims: “Christ is risen from the dead, the first-fruits of them that sleep; for by a man came death, and by a man the resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor 15:20-21). How?
Thomas affirms: “Christ’s Passion is the cause of our ascending to heaven, properly speaking, by removing the hindrance which is sin, and also by way of merit; whereas Christ’s Ascension is the direct cause of our ascension by His beginning it in Him, who is our Head, with whom the members must be united” (3a. 57, 6 ad 2).
Christ’s Resurrection acts as a cause of our resurrection, “Christ’s Resurrection is not the meritorious cause but the efficient and exemplar cause of our resurrection…” (3a. 56, 1, ad 3). How is Christ’s Resurrection the “efficient cause” of our rising from the dead? Thomas explains:
It is the efficient cause inasmuch as Christ’s humanity, according to which He rose again, is as it were the instrument of His Godhead and works by its power. And therefore, just as all other things that Christ did and endured in His humanity are profitable to our salvation, through the power of the divinity, so also is Christ’s Resurrection the efficient cause of ours, through the Divine power… (3a. 56, 1 ad 3).
Thomas continues to show that Jesus’ Resurrection is also the exemplar cause, that is, the example or model, of our resurrection:
But just as the Resurrection of Christ’s body, through the personal union with the Word, is first in point of time, so also is it first in dignity and perfection… Whatever is most perfect is always the exemplar, which the less perfect copies according to its mode; consequently Christ’s Resurrection is the exemplar of ours (3a. 56, 1 ad 3).
Thomas reminds us of Paul’s words: “He will reform the body of our lowliness, made like to the body of His glory” (Phil 3:21).
Thomas maintains that “The divinely established natural order is that every cause operates first upon what is nearest to it and through it upon others that are more remote.” Thomas uses the example of fire that first heats what is closest and then what is further away. According to this principle, “The Word of God first bestows immortal life upon that body which is naturally united with Himself and through it works the resurrection in all other bodies” (3a. 56, 1).
The principles that Thomas has elaborated, relating Christ’s Resurrection to our own, are also applied to the Ascension.
Thomas says: “He prepared the way for our ascent into heaven, as He said ‘I go to prepare a place for you’” (3a. 57. 6). In what way did He prepare a place for us? Thomas responds: “Since He is our Head, the members must follow where the Head is gone: He said ‘Where I am, you also may be’” (Jn 14:3). (3a. 57, 6).
Thomas picks up on the words of the Letter to the Ephesians, “Ascending on high, He led captivity captive. Thomas comments: “captives indeed of a happy taking, since they were acquired by His victory” (3a. 57, 6).
Christ acts as our intercessor before the Father: “As the high-priest under the Old Testament entered the holy place to stand before God for the people, so also Christ entered heaven, ‘to make intercession for us’” (Heb 7:25) (3a. 57, 6).
The presence of Christ’s humanity in heaven, itself, is an eternal intercession for humanity, as Thomas shows:
Because the showing of Himself in the human nature which He took with Him to heaven is a pleading for us; so that the very reason that God so exalted human nature in Christ, He may take pity on them for whom the Son of God took human nature (3a. 57, 6).
Furthermore, Jesus, as our Lord, bestows gifts upon us: “Being established as God and Lord in His heavenly seat, He might send gifts upon us: ‘He ascended above all the heavens that He might fill all things… with His gifts’” (Eph 4:10-11) (3a. 57, 6).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to the Summa Theologiae give the part of the Summa, the question and the article. If the reference is a response to an objection that Thomas has raised, the reference will indicate “ad,” meaning “to” the objection. This reference is found in the third part of the Summa, questions 48 and 57, and various articles.