Wednesday, May 24, 2023

St Gregory of Nyssa on the Ascension

In the Breviary of St Pius V, this beautiful passage from St Gregory of Nyssa’s Sermon on the Ascension is read at Matins on the Wednesday within the Octave. It explains the last part of Psalm 23 as a dialog between the angels who accompany Our Lord in His Ascension, and those who serve as door-keepers of Heaven, into which He brings our human nature. The full passage from the Psalm is as follows.

“Lift up your gates, o ye princes, and be ye lifted up, o eternal gates: and the King of Glory shall enter in. Who is this King of Glory? the Lord who is strong and mighty: the Lord mighty in battle. Lift up your gates, O ye princes, and be ye lifted up, O eternal gates: and the King of Glory shall enter in. Who is this King of Glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of Glory.” (verses 7-10)

A silver icon of the Ascension made in Georgia in the 11th or 12th century; note the Angels at the top opening the gates of Heaven.
“The Prophet David makes today’s festival, which is great enough in itself, all the greater, when he adds to it words of rejoicing taken from the Psalms. For this great prophet, rising above himself, as if he were not at all weighed down by the body, brings himself into the midst of the heavenly powers, and tells us what they said when they accompanied the Lord as He returned to heaven, and commanded those Angels who dwell on earth, even they to whom His entrance into human life was entrusted, with these words: ‘Lift up your gates, o ye princes, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall come in!’

… The gatekeepers therefore ask ‘Who is this King of glory?’ They answer them, and show Him strong and mighty in battle, Who came to fight against him who held human nature captive and in servitude, and to ‘destroy him that had the power of death’ (Hebr. 2), so that, that most oppressive enemy being conquered, he might win mankind back unto freedom and peace.

The guardians come to meet him, and order the doors to be opened, that He might once again receive glory in their presence. But they do not recognize Him, who was clad in the sordid stole of our (earthly) life, whose garments are red from the winepress of our evils. (Isa. 63) Therefore His companions are asked once again by those voices ‘Who is this King of glory?’ And they answer no longer ‘He that is strong and mighty in battle’, but rather ‘The Lord of hosts’, Who hath obtained the rule of the world, Who hath gathered together all things in Himself, who hath restored all things to their prior state; He is the King of Glory!”

It is a very ancient tradition of the Fathers to understand the passage from Isaiah 63 cited here as a prophecy of the Incarnation. St Gregory’s namesake, friend and fellow-bishop (of Nazianzus), has a very similar passage in his Oration 45, 25.

“And if He ascend up into Heaven, ascend with Him. Be one of those angels who escort Him, or one of those who receive Him. Bid the gates be lifted up, or be made higher, that they may receive Him, exalted after His Passion. Answer to those who are in doubt because He bears up with Him His body and the tokens of His Passion, which He had not when He came down, and who therefore inquire, ‘Who is this King of Glory? that it is the Lord strong and mighty, as in all things that He has done from time to time and does, so now in His battle and triumph for the sake of mankind. And give to the doubting of the question the twofold answer. And if they marvel and say as in Isaiah’s drama ‘Who is this that comes from Edom and from the things of earth?’ or ‘How are the garments red of Him that is without blood or body, as of one that treads in the full wine-press?’ set forth the beauty of the array of the Body that suffered, adorned by the Passion, and made splendid by the Godhead, than which nothing can be more lovely or more beautiful.”

An 11th-century mosaic of St Gregory of Nyssa, from the cathedral of St Sophia in Kyiv. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Despite his importance as a theologian, and his close association with the other Cappadocian Fathers (St Basil was his elder brother), St Gregory of Nyssa was very little known in the West for a very long time. Almost nothing was known of his writings, and there was no veneration paid to him as a Saint, although he is listed in the Martyrology on March 9th. To this day, he has never been recognized as a Doctor of the Church, and the passage given above is his only appearance in the Divine Office. This may make the inclusion of it seem unusual, but it is in fact part of a very deliberate program of the Tridentine Breviary. The Protestants often claimed to find justification for their teachings, and proof that they were not really novelties, in the writings of the Fathers. In the company of Western Fathers such as Maximus of Turin, Augustine, Leo the Great and Gregory the Great, those of the East such as Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom appear as witnesses against them, attesting to the true and perennial teaching of the Church.

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