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I am a medievalist and an adjunct college instructor in the humanities at Union College. My research includes medieval theologies of history, text/image relationships in visionary and mystical texts, and the writings of the twelfth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. I am also a translator of medieval Latin and German texts, especially as relate to my research. My translation of Hildegard's Book of Divine Works is available from Catholic University of America Press here. I completed a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany in 2008, and a B.A. in Classics and German at Boston College in 2007.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

“The sun was lifted up, and the moon stood fixed in its order.” (Hbk 3.11)

The Ascension of Christ
13th-c. apse window, Lyons Cathedral
(Image: Wikipedia)

A Sermon for the Ascension of the Lord

From the Speculum Ecclesiae of Honorius Augustodunensis (early 12th cen.)[1]

The sun was lifted up, and the moon stood fixed in its order (Hbk 3.11).[2] Christ is the eternal sun, by which all the angels’ choirs are enlightened; he is the true light, by which all souls are enlightened (Jn 1.9). While hidden here beneath the cloud of the flesh, he is surrounded by the gloom of our fragility—but at last he surfaced from the darkness of hell and today is lifted gloriously up above the stars and exalted above all the angels’ dignities, the Lord of Majesty at the right hand of the Father. The moon or Church, enlightened by him, stood fixed in her order,[3] as with the apostles she watched him ascend the heavens. The apostles indeed formed the Church’s order as they established for her the order of living rightly and instructed her in how to direct her course according to the Sun of righteousness (Mal 4.6). O how splendid these horns the newborn moon has extended today, as the sun rising high poured into it the brilliance of eternal splendor! O how clear her visage, as she stood fixed in her order, watching with the apostolic choir—who formed her order—and with the Virgin Mother of God—who served as her type—as her flesh penetrated the outer heavens with her head, that is, with her Redeemer, with her Bridegroom, with her God! O what happiness mounts up today in heaven for the angels, as the Son of God, who was directed from the palace to the prison on behalf of a servant—indeed from his homeland into exile, an exile on behalf of an exile—as he returns today triumphantly to the Father’s kingdom! So too this is called the day of God’s triumph, when the singular Conqueror of death is glorified as the Author of life with hymns of praise by the Senate of the heavenly Court.

The Romans kept a custom of presenting a triumph to victors in this way. After an emperor or consul has by arms made another nation subject to the Roman Empire and the victor has returned with the spoils, the Senate and entire people of Rome go out to meet him merrily,[4] receiving the victor with songs and praises. He is clothed with the purple, crowned with a diadem woven from laurel and gold, and borne into the city in a golden chariot, gleaming with gems and drawn by four white horses. Furthermore, the conquered nobles go before the chariot, bound in golden chains, while the common captives follow the chariot with their hands bound behind their backs. The spoils, too, are paraded at the same time as a symbol of the victory, and thus the laurel-crowned victor is lead in solemn ritual to the highest temple, and then the spoils are divided among the people.

Back then, the Roman nobility conferred the honor of a triumph upon its supreme victors as a form of worldly glory—but God also wanted the glory of the of the supreme victor, Christ, to be prefigured by his enemies, though they would become friends. For the triumph of the Roman kings preceded as a figure today’s triumph. For Christ the monarch, the King of glory (Ps 23[24].7), has overthrown the tyrant’s kingdom, taken captive the captivity held by him (cf. Eph 3.8), made the rebellious world subject to the heavenly commonwealth. Today the Victor has returned to his native land with noble spoils, and the senate of the archangels, together with every cohort of the heavens, has come forth to meet him merrily, to receive their Victor King with the congratulatory melodies of singers. He is adorned with the purple, because for the suffering he endured, he has been crowned by the Father with glory and honor (Ps 8.6). He is crowned with a diadem woven of gold and laurel, as he is adorned all around with the multitude of angels and humans. For by the splendor of the gold is understood in faith the brilliance of the angels, while by the laurel’s green is understood viridity. It was with a crown woven, as it were, out of these that Christ was distinguished, when human fragility was united by him in glory to angelic dignity—as said by the prophet, with all these as with a crown you will be adorned (sc. Ps 8.6). Of this crown it is written: You shall bless the crown of the year of your goodness (Ps 64.12[65.11]). Christ is indeed the year of God’s goodness, as he became a partaker of our mortality. Its months are the twelve apostles; its days, the righteous; its hours, the faithful; but its nights are they who yet wander in the darkness of unfaithfulness or sin. The crown of this year is the multitude of angels and humans that surround it in perpetual glory.

The chariot distinguished by gold and jewels, in which the victor celebrates his triumph, alludes to the Gospel, resplendent in wisdom and signs, through which the world rejoices to recognize Christ’s triumph. The wheels on which the chariot rolls are the evangelists, through whom Christ’s triumph is brought forth. This chariot is drawn by four white horses, for Christ is borne in the Gospel’s chariot throughout the four parts of the world by teachers[5] who gleam white with virtue. This chariot of God, we recall, is attended by ten thousand (Ps 67.18[68.17]), for Christ’s triumph is foretold by all the writers of the Old and New Testament. Thousands of those rejoicing (ibid.) run before this chariot, as today many thousands of angels receive the Lord triumphant. Conquered nobles bound in golden chains go before the chariot, because those who have been redeemed by the Lord seek the things of heaven, constrained by the chains of love. The commons follow with their hands bound, because the people, binding themselves against evil deeds with the fear of the Lord, are conducted to joy. The spoils accompany the chariot on parade, because the multitude of saints that arose with Christ is today exalted with him to the stars. The victor is led into the highest temple with song, because Christ triumphant is led today into the temple of the heavenly Jerusalem with the angels’ chorus. Afterward, the spoils are divided among the people, because through the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, various charisms are granted to the faithful. So it is said, Ascending on high, he took captivity captive, he gave gifts to people (Eph 4.8 / Ps 67.19[68.18]). Indeed, the human nature, in which he endured here so many adversities on our behalf and because of us, today he has transferred from earth to heaven, above the angelic height and to the right hand of the Father. The captivity that had been so long detained in the prison of hell, the victor has taken captive and brought into his Father’s palace. He has given gifts to people as, pouring the Holy Spirit upon them, he conferred knowledge of all languages (cf. Acts 2.4).

Today, dear friends, the Lord’s magnificence is lifted up above the heavens (Ps 8.2)—but his Bride, his Body, the Church, is yet sore oppressed among the Babylonians. But as Christ, after the prince of death was vanquished and the world made subject, ascends the heavens today as the Conqueror, so the Church, after the Antichrist is overcome and the world tread under foot, shall ascend triumphant to heaven. After Goliath is laid low and she is rescued from her enemies, she shall be raised up by her Bridegroom out of the vale of tears, the moon with her disc now full, and be gathered into the bedchamber of the eternal Sun (cf. Ps 18.6[19.5]), to be allied with the angels’ stars. So she applauds the one who jubilantly ascends, with exultation from the Song of Songs: Behold, she says, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, skipping over the hills (Sg 2.8). A figure of this is expressed in the prophet Jeduthun, because he is called “skipper.”[6] Christ indeed came into the world like one leaping upon the mountains, and returns to heaven skipping—he made his leap from heaven when he came from his Father’s seat into the Virgin’s womb; then he leapt into the manger, then onto the gibbet of the cross, from the cross into the grave, then into the depths of hell, from hell into the world, and then he skipped into heaven. His going out, it says, is from the height of heaven, and his circuit unto the height of it (Ps 18.7[19.6]).

Today he skips across all the mountains and hills, because the humanity he assumed from us he has taken up above every height of the angels and the saints. Moreover, how he ascended into heaven the Gospel tells us plainly. Appearing today to his disciples as they were reclining at table, as master he rebuked their disbelief, as Lord he bade them preach the Gospel in all the world, and as God he granted them the power to perform[7] signs in his name (cf. Lk 24.30-51). Then, to prove the real nature of his flesh, he ate with them and instructed them to await the promised Holy Spirit in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 1.4). Afterwards, he took them to Bethany and lifting up his hands, he blessed them (Lk 24.50). Then as they were looking, he was lifted up, received by a cloud (Acts 1.9), and borne into heaven, and as they gazed after him into heaven, behold, two angels stood there in white, who foretold to them that he would return in judgment in the same way in which he had just departed (Acts 1.10-11). There were, moreover, one hundred and twenty who saw him ascend, and among them there was Mary, his mother, together with the apostles (Acts 1.13-15). All of them returned joyfully together to Jerusalem and continued daily with their prayer and praise to God, until they received the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (cf. Acts 2.1-4). This was prefigured by the patriarchs and prophets—the patriarch Enoch, the seventh from Adam, was snatched away to paradise (Gn 5.24), and the prophet Elijah was taken to heaven by the chariot of fire (4[2] Kgs 2.11).

13th-c. window in Lyons Cathedral,
fig. 15 in Mâle, Religious Art in France
The festivities of this holy day are also expressed to us through birds.[8] The eagle flies higher than all the birds and flashes the pupil of is eye into the very beam of the sun. But when it calls its chicks forth to fly, it hovers over them and spreads out its wings, taking them up into the oar-beats of its wings and teaching them how to fly. Christ, likewise, has pierced into heaven’s height far above all the saints, as the Father has exalted him to his right hand before all the angels. He has spread the wings of the cross over us, defended us from demons, adopted us as children after taking on the difficult ministry, and carried us back upon his shoulders like the lost sheep to the flock (cf. Lk 15.4-5). Over us he hovered and called us forth to fly, when, scaling the skies, he showed us, his members, how to follow him, the head, with good works. Ezekiel expressed this through the four animals that John later saw, praising the Lamb day and night (Ezek 4 and Rv 1). Christ was indeed the man by being born, the calf by dying, the lion by rising again, and the eagle by ascending.

13th-c. window in Lyons Cathedral,
fig. 16 in Mâle, Religious Art in France.
There is a white-colored bird called a caladrius,[9] through which it can be shown whether a sick person can survive. For when the bird is brought to the sick person, it turns its face away from him if he will die. But if he will live, it directs and fixes its gaze powerfully upon him; with mouth wide open, it drinks the sickness out of him and flies up high opposite the sunshine, where the sickness, now drawn out, exudes from it, and the sick person rejoices at his welfare. The white caladrius is Christ, born of the Virgin. He is brought to the sick person when he is sent by Father unto the ailing human race. He turned his face away from the Jews and abandoned them to death—but turning his face to us, he called us back from death and, undergoing the cross, he himself bore our infirmity, and the bloody sweat poured forth from him. Then into the heights of heaven he flew with our flesh to the Father and granted to all everlasting salvation.[10]

The place where he ascended cries out still to all, that for those who want to scale the heavens, no one can hinder their path. Indeed, the footprint that he pressed into the sand as he ascended remains still in that place, and even though pieces of the earth are taken away from there every day by the faithful, the footprint cannot be destroyed. What’s more, although there is a church over that place and it must be enclosed above by its dome, the airspace through which he ascended can in no way be enclosed and so remains open even today. Every year, a storm comes upon that church with a powerful downpour from the sky that knocks everyone there to the ground, showing with what terror Christ will come in judgment when he shakes heaven and earth mightily. At that time indeed the heavens pass away with a great blow and the elements will be melted by the heat (2 Ptr 3.10).

Therefore, dear friends, since there is no other name under heaven given among humans by which one is to be saved except in Christ Jesus (Acts 4.12), who allowed himself to be lifted up for us on the cross as the serpent (Nm 21.9 and Jn 3.14); and since, after he drank from the torrent of death (Ps 109[110].7), the Father exalted him today as the head over every name in heaven (Phil 2.9) and incorporated us as coheirs gained for himself by his own blood (cf. Rm 8.17): let us give glory to his praise today (Ps 65.2) and shout out his commendations with the voice of exultation, that he might gather us, his members, to himself when he dances in the Father’s glory. This no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor 2.9).


[1] This sermon has been translated from the text in Patrologia Latina 172, cols. 955-958, in consultation with the following manuscripts:  [2] This Old Latin variant, based on the Septuagint, was embedded in the liturgy for the Feast of the Ascension.  
[3] See Gregory the Great, Hom in Evang. 29.10
[4] festivius, MSS; festivas, PL 172, col. 955C.  
[5] doctoribus: perhaps a reference to the four ancient Doctors of the western Church, Sts. Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great, whom Honorius lists in the letter that prefaces the Speculum Ecclesiae
[6] Cf. 1 Chr 16.41-42 and 25.3; Jeduthun was one of the masters of music set up by King David; on the meaning of his name, see Isidore, Etymologies, VII.viii.28
[7] faciendi, MSS; om. PL 172, col. 957C.  
[8] Émile Mâle has argued that sermons from the Speculum Ecclesiae inspired the typology found in the thirteenth-century central lancet window in the apse of Lyons Cathedral, which depicts the main events in Christ’s life. In the Ascension panels (shown at the top of this page), the central images show two groups of disciples looking up to the ascending Christ in the apex. The two cartouches flanking the lower of the disciple groups, meanwhile, show the Eagle (to the right) and the Caladrius (to the left). See Mâle, Religious Art in France, XIII Century. A Study in Mediaeval Iconography and Its Sources of Inspiration (J. M. Dent & Sons, 1913), pp. 37-43
[9] See the bestiary entry for Caladrius; and George C. Druce, “The Caladrius and its legend, sculptured upon the twelfth-century doorway of Alne Church, Yorkshire,” Archaeological Journal 69 (1912), 381-416, esp. 392-93. 
[10] “salvation”: salutem, a term which encompasses health of body and soul, thus weaving the allegory more closely.  

1 comment:

Laura J said...

Many thanks for this very useful resource! I was directed to it thorugh correspondence on the Medieval Religion discussion list, whihch wa slucky as I missed your orginal posting of it there! Good luck with this project.