The Exaltation of Christ
Christ humbled Himself, “becoming obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. For which cause God also hath exalted Him” (Phil. ii. 8, 9). As St. John Chrysostom warns us: “The exaltation of Christ referred only to His humanity. As God He possessed all earthly happiness and needed no further exaltation.” And St. Cyprian confirms him when he says that it was not the Almighty but the humanity of the Almighty which was exalted.
1. Immediately after the death of Christ His soul went down in triumph into the place where the souls of those justified under the Old Law were detained (Fourth Council of Lateran).
This place is called limbo, and is quite distinct from purgatory, though the two places had this feature in common, that in neither place is there the vision of God; for while there is pain to be suffered in purgatory, there was none in limbo; nor was limbo the same as hell, where the pains are eternal; on the contrary the souls in limbo had some consolation (Luke xvi. 25), though entrance to heaven was deferred (Heb. ix. 8); hence they longed for the coming of the Saviour to open to them the gates of heaven. Limbo is called in Scripture the “bosom of Abraham” (Luke xvi. 22); the “prison” (1 Pet. iii. 19). Our Lord called the place “paradise” (Luke xxiii. 43), because by His arrival the prison-house would be turned into paradise. After the death of Christ limbo ceased to exist. There were in that place among others, Adam and Eve, Abel, Noe, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, David, Isaias, Daniel, Job, Tobias, the foster-father of Christ, and many others, including those of Noe’s contemporaries who had done penance and repented at the Flood (1 Pet. iii. 20).
Christ went down into limbo to announce to the souls detained there the news of the redemption, and to set them free.
Christ went down to announce to the souls in limbo that He had accomplished the redemption (1 Pet. iii. 19). St. Epiphanius tells us that the soul of Christ, united with the Godhead, went down into limbo, and St. Ireneus says that the Lord spent three days there. According to St. Ignatius of Antioch, Our Lord returned with a large company of souls. “He went,” says St. Cyprian, “like a great king who delivers his subjects from a prison where they have been kept in durance.” Christ revealed Himself also to the souls in hell, and they were compelled to bow the knee to Him (Phil. ii. 10).
2. On Easter Sunday before sunrise Christ rose glorious from the tomb by His own almighty power.
Christ often foretold that He would rise again on “the third day” (Luke xviii. 33); He compared Himself to Jonas (Matt. xii. 40); on the occasion of His driving the money-sellers out of the Temple. He said of His own body: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John ii. 19); He claimed the power of laying down His life and taking it up again (John x. 18). When it is said in Holy Scripture that the Father raised Him (Rom. vi. 4; viii. 11), it is meant that as Christ is one with the Father all that Christ does the Father does also. The resurrection is a most undoubted fact. The Jews asserted that the disciples had stolen the body of Christ (Matt. xxviii. 13). Such an act was far beyond their power. The great stone that covered the sepulchre could not have been moved without waking some, at least, of the guards; “besides,” as St. Augustine says, “these could not be accepted as witnesses if they were asleep;” and it is a remarkable circumstance that the soldiers were not punished for their breach of duty. Many free-thinkers urge that Christ was dead only in appearance, and after an interval recovered from His swoon and left the grave. The pain and loss of blood following on the scourging and crowning with thorns would have been enough to cause death, and the wound in the side alone, so great that St. Thomas could thrust in his hand, would have been fatal. Even when Christ was going to the place of execution, He was too weak to carry His cross; how could He, after thirty-six hours in the tomb, remove the long wrappings of His grave-clothes, roll away the stone, and make His way out on feet yet fresh from the wounds of the nails? The death of Christ was officially verified and reported to Pilate (Mark xv. 45), and His bones were not broken by the soldiers because they saw that He was dead (John xix. 33). The blood and water which flowed from the side of Christ after the piercing with the lance, were a sign of death (iJohn xix. 34). His holy Mother and His friends would never have placed Him in the tomb unless He had been dead. All the Evangelists agree in testifying to the death of Christ,
The risen Lord bore in His body the five wounds, and it had the properties of agility, subtility, clarity and impassibility.
Christ retained the five wounds, for He ordered the unbelieving apostle to place his finger in the wounds of me nails, and his hand in the wound of the side (John xx. 27). Our Lord would keep the marks of the wounds in heaven to show us that He would not forget us, bearing in His hands, as St. Bernard says, the writ of our redemption written in His own blood; and St. Ambrose adds, that Our Lord bore these wounds to be a perpetual reminder to His heavenly Father of the price of our redemption, to renew the sacrifice of the cross forever in heaven (Heb. viii. 1-6).
Christ rose again to prove to us that He is God, and that we, too, are to rise again.
Christ is the first-fruits of them that sleep (1 Cor. xv. 20), and as Christ, our Head arose, so shall we all rise again (St. Irenaus). He called first His own body to life; later He will call the members of His mystical body to share its life (St. Athanasius). The hope of the resurrection was Job’s consolation in his trouble (Job xix. 25). Throughout Christendom Easter is celebrated as the feast of the resurrection. In the Old Testament the Paschal Sabbath was kept in remembrance of the delivery from the Egyptian yoke. Among Christians, in accordance with a decision of the Council of Nicaea, 325 A.D., the feast is celebrated on the first Sunday after the full moon which comes next after the spring equinox. In consequence Easter may fall anywhere between the twenty-second of March and the twenty-fifth of April. The heathen wakes to a new spiritual life in the waters of baptism; hence the blessing of the font on Holy Saturday; and all those who perform their Easter duties have a spiritual resurrection from the dead (Rom. vi. 4). In the words of St. Ambrose, if we are to rise from the grave of the flesh we must first rise from the grave of our sins. The Paschal candle, which is blessed on Holy Saturday is, on account of its five incense grains, which rep resent the five wounds, a figure of Our Lord; and it is lighted at all services till Ascension Thursday. The Easter eggs are a type of the resurrection: just as the young bird breaks from the shell, so will mankind arise again from the earth. The season itself is typical of the new life in the reawakening of nature.
The risen Lord remained forty days on earth, and appeared frequently during this time to His disciples.
St. Ambrose tells us that Christ appeared first to His holy Mother. St. Peter was the first of the apostles to see the risen Lord (Luke xxiv. 34). Early in the morning of Easter Sunday Christ appeared to Mary Magdalen by the sepulchre (Mark xvi. 9; John xx. 15), and then to the holy women as they were leaving the grave (Matt. xxviii. 9); in the evening He appeared to the two disciples who were going to Emmaus (Luke xxiv.), and immediately after to the assembled disciples in the cenacle. He ate fish and honey in their presence, and afterwards gave them the power of forgiving sins (John xx.). On the following Sunday He appeared again in the same house and reproved Thomas for his want of faith (John xx.). He again appeared to seven of the disciples on the lake of Genesareth and gave St. Peter authority over the apostles and the faithful, telling him at the same time what death he should die (John xxi.). A more solemn occasion was the appearance to five hundred disciples on a mountain in Galilee, when He gave them the command to go forth into the world, teaching and baptizing (Matt. xxviii. 16). He spent there forty days in speaking to the disciples of the kingdom of God (Acts i. 3). The last appearance was on the occasion of His ascent into heaven. He appeared not in the night, but in the full light of day, not once only but repeatedly, not in some one place but in many places; nor were they instantaneous apparitions, but He remained some time, and spoke with His apostles. The resurrection was a point on which the apostles testified in person. They gave no credit to the women who came from the grave with their account of the angel (Luke xxiv. 11). They doubted the evidence of their own senses when Christ Himself appeared to them; then it was that He showed them His wounds, and allowed them to touch Him, and ate in their presence (Luke xxiv. 42). Thomas refused to believe the ten apostles (John xx. 25), and this unbelief of St. Thomas is a greater help to our faith, to use the words of St. Gregory the Great, than the belief of all the rest. There was nothing of which the apostles had a stronger conviction than of the reality of the resurrection, and this they preached on the feast of Pentecost, before the Council, in the Temple, etc.
3. Forty days after His resurrection Our Lord ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives, and now sits at the right hand of God the Father.
Before ascending Christ raised His hands and blessed His apostles, enjoining o n them to preach the Gospel to all nations, and promising to be with them all days, till the end of the world (Matt. xxviii. 18; Luke xxiv. 50). After the ascent two angels appeared and consoled the apostles (Acts i. 10). St. Jerome tells us that the impress of Christ’s sacred feet used to be shown to pilgrims; there remains now only the trace of the left foot, that of the right having been removed by the Turks. It is remarkable that from the direction of this footprint Our Lord must have been facing Europe as He mounted into heaven, just as He faced it during the crucifixion. Christ made His ascent from the Mount of Olives, where He began His Passion, to show us that the road to heaven must be through suffering. He ascended into heaven by His own power, not like Elias borne on a chariot (4 Kings ii. 11), or like Habacuc carried by an angel (Dan. xiv. 36). His escort into heaven was formed of the souls released from limbo (Eph. iv. 8). The Fathers are of one mind in teaching that Christ has never descended in the flesh from heaven since then, except during holy Mass. Forty days after Easter the feast of Ascension Thursday is kept, preceded by the three Rogation days with their processions, symbolic of the going out of Christ with His apostles to the Mount of Olives.
Christ ascended into heaven in order, as man, to enter into His kingdom (Eph. iv. 10), to send down the Holy Spirit (John xvi. 7), to intercede for us with the Father (John xiv. 16), to prepare a place for us there (John xiv. 2).
Christ is the mediator between God and man (1 Tim. ii. 5), and our advocate with the Father (1 John ii. 1). “If,” says St. Bernard, “you fear to go to God the Father, turn to Jesus Christ, Who has been given to us as a mediator. What can such a Father refuse to such a Son?” Christ is often likened to the sun, which sheds its light and warmth the higher it rises in the heavens.
Christ sits on the right hand of God, that is, as man He has power over all creatures.
To sit on the right hand was a mark of special honor (3 Kings ii. 19); hence the expression “Christ sits on the right hand of God” is equivalent to: “Christ is next in honor to God.” He is therefore above all the angels (Eph. i. 21). God the Father has no body; so that when we speak of the right hand of God, we mean, as St. John Damascene tells us, the glory of His Godhead, of which Christ took possession in the flesh. The expression, “sits,” is significant of His royal and judicial powers. The words of Christ Himself were: “All power is given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matt. xxviii. 18). Hence all creatures owe Him divine homage (Phil. ii. 9-11).
4. On the tenth day after His ascending into heaven Christ sent down the Holy Ghost on the apostles.
The Holy Ghost descended on a Sunday, about nine o’clock in the morning (Acts ii. 15). The signs accompanying His descent were symbolical of His action; the rush of wind represented the strengthening of the will, the fire the illumination of the understanding, the tongues the gift of tongues to the apostles and the teaching of the Gospel to all nations. Pentecost is the day of foundation of the Church, because it began on that day by the baptism of three thou sand new members. Pentecost is celebrated fifty days after Easter Pentecost meaning fifty. In the Old Law this day was celebrated fifty days after the Exodus, in memory of the promulgation of the commandments on Mount Sinai. On Mount Sion as on Mount Sinai was God’s will declared amid lightning and thunder, and in both cases fifty days after the release in one instance from bodily, in the other from spiritual slavery. It is the custom to bless the font in memory of the three thousand who were baptized on this day. The Saturday preceding was always observed as a fast day, that like the apostles we might prepare for the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Sunday following Whitsunday is Trinity Sunday, and on the Thursday following is kept the feast of Corpus Christi.
At the end of the world Christ will come again to judge all men.
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