(Sunday after Ascension, Evening.)
Ephesians iv.9.10. Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.
This is one of those very deep texts which we are not meant to think about every day; only at such seasons as this, when we have to think of Christ ascending into heaven, that he might send down his Spirit at Whitsuntide. Of this the text speaks; and therefore, we may, I hope, think a little of it to-day, but reverently, and cautiously, like men who know a very little, and are afraid of saying more than they know. These deep mysteries about heaven we must always meddle with very humbly, lest we get out of our depth in haste and self- conceit. As it is said,
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
For, if we are not very careful, we shall be apt to mistake the meaning of Scripture, and make it say what we like, and twist it to suit our own fancies, and our own ignorance. Therefore we must never, with texts like this, say positively, 'It must mean this. It can mean only this.' How can we tell that?
This world, which we do see, is far too wonderful for us to understand. How much more wonderful must be the world which we do not see? How much more wonderful must heaven be? How can we tell what is there, or what is not there? We can tell of some things that are not there, and those are sin, evil, disorder, harm of any kind. Heaven is utterly good. Beyond that, we know nothing. Therefore I dare not be positive about this text, for fear I should try to explain it according to my own fancies. Wise fathers and divines have differed very much as to what it means; how far any one of them is right, I cannot tell you.
The ancient way of explaining this text was this. People believed in old times that the earth was flat. Then, they held, hell was below the earth, or inside it in some way: and the burning mountains, out of which came fire and smoke, were the mouths of hell. And when they believed that, it was easy for them to suppose that St. Paul spoke of Christ's descending into hell. He went down, says St. Paul, into the lower parts of the earth. What could those lower parts be, they asked, but the hell which lay under the earth?
Now about that we know nothing. St. Paul himself never says that hell is below the earth. Indeed (and this is a very noteworthy thing) St. Paul never, in his epistles, mentions in plain words hell at all; so what St. Paul thought about the matter, we can never know. Whether by Christ's descending into the lower parts of the earth, he meant descending into hell, or merely that our Lord came down on this earth of ours, poor, humble, and despised, laying his glory by for a while, this we cannot tell. Some wise men think one thing, some another. Two of the wisest and best of the great old fathers of the Church think that he meant only Christ's death and burial. So how dare I give a positive opinion, where wiser men than I differ?
But about the other half of the text, which says, that he ascended high above all heavens, there is no such difficulty.
All agree as to what that means: though, perhaps, in old times they would have put it in different words.
The old belief was, that as hell was below the flat earth, so heaven was above it; and that there were many heavens, seven heavens, in layers, as it were, one above the other; and that the seventh heaven, which was the highest of all, was where God dwelt. Now, whether St. Paul believed this, we cannot tell. He speaks of being himself caught up into the third heaven, and here Christ is spoken of as ascending above all heavens.
My own belief, though I say it very humbly, is, that St. Paul spoke of these things only as a figure of speech, for the sake of the ignorance of the people to whom he was writing. They talked in that way; and he was forced now and then to talk in that way, too, to make them understand him. I think that, when he spoke of being caught up into the third heaven, he did not mean that he was lifted bodily off the earth into the skies: but that his soul was raised up and enlightened to understand high and wonderful heavenly matters, though not the highest or most wonderful. If he had meant that, he would have said, that he was caught up into the seventh heaven. We know that our Lord, in the same way, continually used parables; because, as he said, the ignorant people could not understand the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven; and he had, therefore, to put them into parables, taken from the common country matters, and country forms of speech, if by any means he might make them understand. And so, I suppose, it was with St. Paul. He had to speak in such a way that he could be understood; and no more.
But when he says that Christ ascended far above all heavens, we are to believe this -- that he ascended to God himself. So high that he could go no higher; so far that he could go no farther.
We, now, do not believe that there are seven heavens above the earth; and we need not. It is no doctrine of the Church, or of the Creeds. We know that the earth is round, and not flat; and that the heavens, if by that we mean the sky, is neither above it, nor below it, but round it on every side. But some may say, whither, then, did our Lord ascend? To what place did his body go up? And that is a right question; for we must always bear in mind that not merely Christ's godhead but his manhood, not merely Christ's soul but his body also, ascended into heaven. If we do not believe that, we do not hold the Catholic faith. Whither, then, did Christ ascend?
My friends, we know this. That this earth and the planets move round the sun, which is in the centre of them. We know this, too; that all the countless stars which spangle the sky are really suns likewise, perhaps, with worlds which we cannot see, moving round them, as we move round the sun. We know, too, that these fixed stars, as they seem to be, are not really fixed, but have some regular movements among themselves, which seem very slow and small to us, from their immense distance, but which really are very great and fast.
Now all these suns and stars, it is reasonable to believe, most probably have a centre. There must be order among them; and they most probably move round one thing, one place, one central sun, as it were, which is the very heart of all the worlds, and the whole universe. Where that place is, or what it is like, we know not, and cannot know. Only this we may believe, that it is glorious beyond all that eye hath seen, and ear heard, or hath entered into the heart of man to conceive. If this world be beautiful, how beautiful must that world of all worlds be. If the sun be glorious, how glorious must the sun of all suns be. If the heaven over us be grand, how grand must that heaven of heavens be. We will not talk of it; for we cannot imagine it: and if we tried to, we should only lower it to our own low fancies. But is it not reasonable to suppose, that there God the Father does, perhaps, in some unspeakable way, shew forth his glory? That there, in the heart of all the worlds, Cherubim and Seraphim continually adore him, crying day and night, 'Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth: Heaven and earth are full of the majesty of thy glory!' before his throne from which goes forth light, and power, and life, to all worlds and all created things.
And is it not reasonable to believe, that there Christ is, in the bosom of the Father, and at the right hand of God? We know that those, too, are only figures. That God is a Spirit, everywhere and nowhere; and has not hands as we have. But it is only by such figures that the Bible can make us understand the truth, that Christ is the highest being in all heavens and worlds; equal with God the Father, and sharer of his kingdom, and power, and glory, God blessed for ever. Amen.
What then does St. Paul mean, when he says, 'That he may fill all things?' I do not know. And I will take care not to lessen and spoil St. Paul's words, by any ignorant words of my own. But one thing I know it will mean one day, for St. Paul says so. That Christ reigns, and will reign, triumphant over sin, and death, and hell, till he have put all enemies under his feet, and the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. Then shall he deliver up the kingdom to God, even the Father; that God may be all in all. What that means I do not know. But this I can say, and you can say. We can pray that God will finish the number of his elect and hasten his kingdom, that we, with all that are departed in the true faith, may have our perfect consummation and bliss, both in body and soul, in his eternal kingdom. And this I can say, that it means now, for you and me; for Whitsuntide tells me: -- that whatever else Christ can or cannot fill, he can at least fill our hearts, because he is in the bosom of the Father himself; and therefore from him, as from the Father, proceeds the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life. That Spirit will proceed even to us, if we will have him. He will fill our hearts with himself; with the Spirit of goodness, which proceeds out of the heaven of heavens, and out of the bosom of God himself; with love, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness; with truth, honour, duty, earnestness, and all that is the likeness of Christ and of God. Oh let us pray for that Spirit; the Spirit of truth, which Christ promised us when he ascended up into the heaven of heavens, to keep us sound in our most holy faith; and the Spirit of goodness, to give us strength to live the good lives of good Christian men.
And then it will matter little what opinions we hold about deep things, which the wisest man can never put into words. And it will matter little, whether what I have been telling you to-day about the heaven of heavens be exactly true or not; for what says St. Paul of such deep matters? That we know in part, and prophesy in part; and that prophecies shall fail, and knowledge vanish away: but charity, love, and right feeling, and right doing, which is the very Holy Spirit of God, shall abide for ever. And if that Spirit be with us, he will guide us in due time into all truth; teach us all we need to know, and enable us to practise all we ought to do. Amen.