How to Ascend

Lenten Reflections 2015: Readings from Augustine

With you I’ve undertaken to consider in order the songs of one ascending, of one ascending and loving, and ascending because loving. Any love either ascends or descends. By good desires we are raised toward God, by evil desires we are cast down into the pits. But because we have fallen by evil desire already, what remains to us is that we acknowledge who it was who did not fall but descended to us and that we cling to him and so ascend ourselves, which we cannot do by ourselves. Our Lord Jesus Christ himself said: “No one ascends to heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man who is in heaven” (Jn 3:13). It looks as if he was sayingd this about himself alone. Did the others remain here, since only the one who descended ascends? What are the others to do? They are to be united to his body so that there may be one Christ, who descends and ascends. The head descended, but he ascends with his body, clothed with his Church which he presents to himself without stain and wrinkle (Eph 5:27). He ascends alone, then. But we, too, when we are so with him that we are his members in him, then he is alone with us and one person, always one person. Unity joins us to him, and the only ones who do not ascend with him are the ones who do not wish to be one with him. 

Although he was in heaven and immortal along with the risen flesh in which he was for a time mortal, although in heaven he was suffering none of the persecution, none of the evil, none of the taunts that he bore for us while in the flesh, he still suffered for his body toiling on earth and said: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). No one was touching him and yet he cried out that he was suffering persecution. We must not lose hope, then, indeed we ought to believe with great confidence, because if he out of love is with us on earth, through the same love we too are with him in heaven. We’ve just told you how he is with us on earth, how he called from heaven, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” even though Paul was not touching or even seeing him. But how can I show that we ourselves are with him in heaven? From the same Paul’s statement, “If you have risen with Christ, seek the things that are above where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Seek the things that are above, not the things on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:1-3). Thus he is still here below, and we are already above: he is here by his loving compassion, we are above by our loving hope. “For we have been saved in hope” (Rom 8:24). Because our hope is certain, although it is in the future, it is spoken of as if it had already been accomplished for us.

Let the singer ascend, therefore. But let this person, Christ, sing from the heart of everyone of you, let everyone be this person. For even if you sing this individually, it is a single person who is saying it because you are all one person in Christ. The Psalm does not say, “To you, Lord, we have lifted our eyes,” but, “To you, Lord, I have lifted my eyes.” Yes, you ought to consider that it is each of you that is speaking, but principally it is that one person, Christ, spread throughout the world. The one who is speaking is the one who said in another Psalm: “From the ends of the earth I have cried to you when my heart was in torment” (Ps 60[61]:3). Who is this who cries out from the ends of the earth? Who is this person spread to the ends of the earth? Anybody can cry out in his own region, but can he do so from the ends of the earth? But it was said of Christ’s heritage, “I will give you the nations as your inheritance and the ends of the earth as your possession” (Ps 2:8).

Let our heart be in torment, and let us cry out. Why is our heart in torment? Not because of what even evil people suffer here, as, for example, when they suffer some loss. A heart in torment over that is ashes. It’s no great thing if you are tormented because by God’s will you’ve lost someone. The hearts of unbelievers are in torment on that account; even people who do not yet believe in Christ suffer such things. But why is a Christian’s heart tormented? Because he does not yet live with Christ. Why is a Christian’s heart in torment? Because he is a stranger here and desires his homeland. If this is why your heart is in torment, you groan even if you are happy by the world’s standards. Even if you are prosperous in every respect and this world smiles over your success, still you groan because you know that you are in exile, and you understand that you are happy in the eyes of the foolish, but not yet according to Christ’s promise. Seeking that promise, you groan; seeking it, you desire it, and by your desire you ascend, and as you ascend, you cry “a song of ascents,” and singing a “song of ascents, you say, “To you I have lifted my eyes, to you who dwell in heaven.” (EnPs 122[123], 1-2; PL 37, 1630-1631)

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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