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The Ascension and the Cosmic Dimensions of Spiritual Combat
Have you ever wondered why the Ascension involved Christ ascending physically into heaven (rather than some kind of spiritual ascension)? Clearly, the physicality is based on Christ’s resurrected body being physical in some sense. Traditional cosmology will help us explore why He ascended into heaven and to understand more deeply the reason for the Ascension’s physicality. This understanding will give us insight into a surprising realm: the cosmological basis for the power of demons, and thus, how we can better combat them. We will see how the Ascension and its physical dimension is a key part of breaking the dominion of the devil over us.
In traditional cosmology according to St Thomas, there are many different spheres surrounding the earth radiating outwards to God, with each sphere, save the outermost, ruled by a different order of angels. After all, the planets and stars move, and they are not living beings. So they cannot be self-movers. Therefore, reasoned Thomas, following Aristotle, they must get their motion from something intelligent lest their motion be without a true explanation. The higher the sphere of the universe, the higher the order of the angel that has charge of it. Ultimately the highest heaven is the highest sphere, and of course is the domain of God. To ascend to heaven, Christ would transport himself from the earth to the highest heaven, passing through the atmosphere and the spheres.
What does traditional cosmology have to do with spiritual combat? And on what basis, cosmologically, would the Ascension break the devil’s power over us? The Church Fathers held that the demons who rebelled, when they were angels, were in charge of the higher spheres, but they were punished by being placed in the atmosphere. They were the higher-ranked angels, rather than those which were terrestrial. They are left in the atmosphere until the final judgment. God kept them in the atmosphere rather than casting them into hell to allow them “to try men, by which the good would be prepared for glory and the wicked for eternal death” (Comm on Eph. C2 L1 n.77.3).
So when we are fighting against demons in spiritual combat, we are combating demons who reign over the atmosphere. We tend to picture spiritual battle as primarily, well, spiritual. But this suggests that we are not just fighting things in our thoughts, but that our battle has cosmic, physical dimensions. Perhaps this should not be surprising; we have long known that even temptation has physical elements to it. For example, it has long been known that from noon to 3 PM with the sun near its peak people start getting tired and lazy and can be prone to more temptations. Traditionally this was called the action of the noonday demon… as one can see, the atmosphere plays a key role in its action on us. How could we possibly win such a fight? Not by ourselves, assuredly.
According to the 20th century Benedictine theologian Anselm Stolz, the Ascension is a key part of our victory in the spiritual combat:
The redemption ... includes a liberation from the dominion of the devil; this liberation implies a penetration of that ring of power with which the demons surround us. Christ in His ascension made the first breach in that ring. Following Him, we too can emerge from Satan’s sphere of dominion.
Stolz, Doctrine of Spiritual Perfection, pg. 70
The ring of power Stolz speaks of corresponds to the sphere in which the demons have their reign (the atmosphere). Basically, the ascension breaks the reign of the demons within the channel of our Lord’s Ascension, leaving the demons no power over us when we are united to Christ and his dominion. If we follow Christ, and accept his reign, then we can begin to be victorious in our fight against the demons. However, if we reject his reign and dominion over any aspect of our lives, whether it be our work, family, or even our government, then logically we will suffer for it in this cosmic spiritual combat. Our choice to follow Christ has cosmic dimensions, freeing more of the cosmos from the dominion of the demons, and allowing us to not be claimed as subjects by the devil at the final judgment. Our spiritual combat is not only our personal affair but has vast consequences on the world and the entire universe. Our participation in the sacramental life, the chief means of following Christ, becomes indeed the greatest possible means to combat the reign of evil throughout the cosmos. Would that more of us knew this.
So because the Ascension is of such importance for the defeat of the demons, it is a great occasion of joy. Aime Solignac in his Dictionary of Spirituality entry on Jubilation analyzes the basis for our Joy in the Ascension, expounding the teachings of Richard of St Victor. Richard of St Victor, the 12th century Augustinian Canon, says the jubilation cymbal is the proper instrument for the Ascension procession. Richard notes here the correspondence between the cymbal, the jubilee of the heart and that of the lips, the manna (the Eucharist):
In the intimate and true Good, although there is only one same and identical sweetness, there … [are all forms of] delight... When this intimate and true sweetness is infused into the marrow of the human soul, it changes gladness of heart to jubilation... it is translated outside into manifest signs, as Gregory says…
Richard of St Victor furthermore states (cf. Solignac):
But what is the feast of the Ascension, if not the raising of the mind to a true and interior joy?
One might be inclined to object that modern physics with its theories of gravity and modern cosmology means we cannot any longer accept the old models as useful. But, this is clearly mistaken. Modern cosmology need not be a reason to reject ancient theology. The usefulness of modern mathematical models in physics does not necessarily require the interpretations of those models given by physicists about reality and the cosmos. Furthermore, some contemporary philosophy of physics/metaphysics, like that of Thomas Molnar and Rob Koons, actually holds that it is necessary to describe the physical universe using a hierarchy of (causal) powers like those given by Aristotle’s physics!
With modern cosmology no obstacle to the old theology, we return to the joy granted by the Ascension of which Richard of St. Victor spoke. To raise our mind to this interior joy, we must promote the kingship of Christ in all areas of our life to follow him in defeating the demons’ ultimate grip over the universe. Our ancestors in the faith knew this, and we would be missing a central part of Christianity were we to abandon it.