The second reading for the Solemnity of the Ascension, Ephesians 1:17-23, begins, “The God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory…” (Eph 1:17). Jesus healed many people and taught many wonderful mysteries but His greatest teaching was revealing God to us, not a God upon whom we project our fears or the God of our needs but the God of “our Lord Jesus Christ.”
If we look closely at this passage, we can recognize a comparison between what has happened to Jesus, in His death, Resurrection and Exaltation and what will happen to ourselves. The Letter asks that we may be granted special gifts to go beyond living by what is apparent, that God “… may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him” (Eph 1:17). St Thomas Aquinas maintains that all believers already have the gifts of faith hope and charity but we ask for additional gifts to know God on a deeper level.
We need the spirit of wisdom, which only God can give: “Who ever knew Your counsel, unless You had given wisdom, and sent Your Holy Spirit from above” (Wis. 9:17). Wisdom is the knowledge of divine realities, the gift “to know Him more clearly.” We ask for the gift of understanding, which Thomas tells us “consists in the revelation of spiritual mysteries that God alone can give” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians, 50).
Ephesians requests that “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened …” (Eph 1:18). Looking over our own lives, we may realize that only slowly did Jesus’ teachings sink in. For whole periods of our lives, we just didn’t “get it.” The things we did and said followed from our lack of understanding.
Ephesians tells us that wisdom and understanding are needed that, “… you may know the great hope to which He has called you” (Eph 1:18). Our existence has a purpose beyond survival and personal achievements. The wisdom and understanding that come from God give us hope. Paul affirms, “We are saved by hope” (Rom. 8:24).
We are, according to Ephesians, “called to hope.” Thomas maintains that the virtue of hope concerns “an immense reality”: “This hope is of utmost importance because it concerns the greatest realities” (Commentary on Ephesians, 53). The First Letter of Peter declares, “He has given us a new birth to a living hope, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3).
The First Letter of Peter gives attention to Baptism when it speaks of a “new birth” that gives us “a living hope.” This hope is founded on “the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
The Letter to the Hebrews encourages us to “hold fast” to this hope: “That we who have fled for refuge may have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. This we have as a sure and firm anchor of the soul, which enters [the sanctuary] behind the veil” (Heb. 6:18-19).
Other New Testament Letters speak of present challenges in light of the future gifts: “The sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come that shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18); “for this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an incomparable eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17).
Our confidence in the future is based not on our resources but on God’s power: “ … that you may know… what is the exceeding greatness of His power towards us, who believe, according to the working of His great might” (Eph 1:19).
God’s manifestations of power upon His Son is the model of what God will do in us, as Thomas affirms: “As the life of Christ is the form and exemplar of our justice, so Christ’s glory and exaltation is the form and exemplar of our glory and exaltation” (Commentary on Ephesians, 56).
Thomas asserts that what God did for the Son, He will do for us: “The divine activity in Christ is the form and exemplar of the divine activity in us … according to ‘the working’ of the might of His power, meaning the powerful might of God, ‘which He worked in Christ,’ exalting Him who is the head. Understand that in this way He will mightily act in us” (Commentary on Ephesians, 57).
Paul affirms: ‘We await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transfigure our wretched body to be like His glorious body by the power which enables Him to subject all things to Himself’” (Phil. 3:20-21).
As God acted on His Son, so will He act for us by the same strength, “the strength which God the Father showed in raising Christ from the dead” (Eph 1:20). Paul expresses this confidence in the Letter to the Romans: “And, if the Spirit of Him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwells in you; He that raised up Jesus Christ from the dead shall quicken also your mortal bodies, because of His Spirit that dwells in you” (Rom. 8: 11).
Jesus is not only raised but also He is exalted: “God seated Him at His right hand in heaven” (Eph 1:20). Thomas Aquinas reminds us that this is a figurative way of speaking:
“Considered in relation to God, He is seated at His right hand; this is not to be thought of as a bodily organ—‘God is a Spirit’ (Jn. 4:24)—but as a metaphorical way of speaking… When we say that Christ Jesus is seated at the right hand of God, it should be understood that according to His humanity He partakes of the Father’s choicest blessings, and according to His divinity it is understood as equality with the Father. ‘The Lord spoke to my Lord: Sit at My right’ (Ps. 110: 1); ‘And the Lord Jesus, after He had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat on the right hand of God’ (Mk 16:19)” (Commentary on Ephesians, 60).
Thomas recognizes that we will not only share Christ’s Resurrection but also His exaltation: “In Scripture we frequently read that we will be exalted in the likeness of Christ’s exaltation. For example, ‘…provided we suffer with Him, so as also to be glorified with Him’ (Rom 8:17); ‘He who conquers I will grant him to sit with Me in My throne; as I Myself have conquered and sat down with My Father on His throne’” (Rev 3:21).
Christ is “above every name that is named,” indicating that Christ has been exalted above every spiritual creature: “He gave Him a name which is above all names” (Phil. 2:9). “Every creature is totally subject to the power of Christ”: ‘All power is given to Me in heaven and in earth’ (Mt 28:18); ‘For in subjecting all things to Him, He left nothing not subjected to Him’” (Heb. 2:8).
Everything is said to be “under His feet,” meaning “every creature is totally subject to the power of Christ” (Commentary on Ephesians, 65). Matthew states: “All power is given to Me in heaven and in earth” (Mt 28:18) and the Letter to the Hebrews declares: “For in subjecting all things to Him, He left nothing not subjected to Him” (Heb. 2:8).
Because Christ is exalted over all, we can have confidence in Christ’ power on us in the future but also in the present: “the wealth of His glorious heritage to be distributed among the members of the church” (Eph 1:18).
In the present, Christ is “the head of the Church, which is His body” (Eph 1:22). Thomas reflects: “He speaks of the relation of the Church to Christ at which is His body, inasmuch as she is subject to Him, receives His influence, and shares the same nature with Christ. ‘Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body’ (1 Cor. 12:12-13)” (Commentary on Ephesians, 70).
The natural body has hands, feet, mouth, which have different activities but each is related to the soul and activated by the soul. Christ is related to His body as its fullness, in a similar way: “The soul itself is the cause and principle of these members and what they are, the soul is virtually. For the body is made for the soul and not the other way around. From this perspective, the natural body is a certain fullness of the soul; unless the members exist with an integral body, the soul cannot exercise fully its activities” (Commentary on Ephesians, 71).
Thomas draws out the relationship between Jesus as the head and the Church which is His body:
“Since the Church was instituted on account of Christ, the Church is called the fullness of Christ. Everything which is virtually in Christ is, as it were, filled out in some way in the members of the Church. For all spiritual understanding, gifts, and whatever can be present in the Church—all of which Christ possesses superabundantly—flow from Him into the members of the Church, and they are perfected in them. So he adds who is filled all in all since Christ makes this member of the Church wise with the perfect wisdom present in Himself, and He makes another just with His perfect justice, and so on with the others” (Commentary on Ephesians, 71).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on Ephesians are taken from the translation of Fr. Fabian R. Larcher, O.P. and M. L. Lamb, edited by J. Mortensen and E. Alarcón. The translation, found in Volume 39 of the Biblical Commentaries, was published by the Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, Lander, Wyoming, in 2012, pages 202-213.