Spiritually, there has long been a negative association with the depths of the earth as the realm of the dead and of hell. Conversely, the sky and the heights are associated with the realm of the living and the glories of heaven. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that Christ’s return to the Father in his Risen and Glorified Body should be presented in terms of ascending up into heaven. Of course, taking this too literally and ignoring its symbolism is not without its problems. Heaven as we know is not a place somewhere beyond the furthest galaxy, but rather a state in which our final and complete union with God enables us to, as it were, see God face to face. And yet if we are not to take this ascension of Christ in the literal sense of being transported by a cloud into some distant and physical heaven, what is this symbolic language trying to convey?
Well, firstly, we need to be clear that in labeling the description of Christ’s ascension “symbolic” we are in no way suggesting that it wasn’t a real historical event. What we are affirming is that it was so much more than what the disciples beheld with their eyes—in much the same way that Christ’s resurrected body is so much more than what they were able to perceive through Christ’s post-resurrection appearances. And so what deeper truths and realities were being conveyed or symbolized by this ascending movement of Christ up and beyond their sight?
I began with the observation that sky and the heavens above generally have spiritually-positive associations, whereas depths and things moving down often have negative connotations. But although Jesus’ ascension is about upward movement and transcending the limits of human existence, it doesn’t exclude downward movement and fully embracing the limitations of human existence, so that these can be transformed and taken up into glory. And thus Saint Paul can ask: What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended into the lower [regions] of the earth?
As with so much else, in this action Jesus is leaving us an example to follow in his footsteps. In the act of saving us, he descended from the heights of his eternal existence and in becoming human submitted not only to death on a cross but also descent to the netherworld and the dark realm of death to free those imprisoned by death and lead them to glory. And thus the symbolism of the Ascension includes this truth about Christ’s descent into hell and the freeing of those held captive by death.
However, if we are to follow Christ in his ascension we cannot sidestep his descent into the netherworld. And this is not only about our inevitable dying and also undertaking that same descent into the realm of the dead, but includes in this present time our descending into the netherworld of our hearts and encountering their dark and sinful depths—that miniature and individual hell from which each one of us has to be freed. In doing so we don’t descend alone, but are accompanied by Christ whose light scatters the darkness, and whose glory shatters our inner chains, so that our liberated hearts may soar upwards with Christ into the realms of endless day. For, in the words of Saint Gregory the Great, we the lowest were far distant from God the highest. And so Christ joined in himself the lowest (that is, his humanity) with the highest (that is, his divinity); and from that union a way of return would open for us by which he would unite us—the lowest—with him, the highest.