A Homily for the Feast of the Ascension
by Bishop Steven Marshall
Although not particularly emphasized in mainstream Christendom, the Ascension of the Christ has been of great and central importance to Gnostics throughout history. The importance of the Ascension to the Gnostic rests on two principle points: the first that, according to the Gnostics, Jesus delivered the deepest and most profound mysteries following the Ascension, and secondly that the Ascension of Christ conveys the promise of our own spiritual ascension and return to the Light, a theme central to all Gnostic teachings.
Mainstream tradition teaches that Jesus ascended bodily (in a physical body) into heaven. The Gnostics, along with other heterodox Jewish sects existing at the time of Christ, disagreed with this idea of a resurrection and ascension of the physical body. Based upon the mysteries to which they were heirs, the Gnostics proposed that the ascension took place in a spiritual body. As stated in the Hermetic Scriptures, “Mortal can not draw near immortal, transitory to everlasting, nor corruptible to incorrupt.” It became quite obvious to early Christians that Christians did not physically resurrect and ascend into heaven. Those Christians who had no paradigm beyond the physical for interpreting the promises of Christ, required some way to explain it. The mainstream teaching developed that, as people did not bodily resurrect and ascend into heaven directly after death, then it would happen at the Apocalypse, in the last days. The mainstream substituted an eschatological phenomenon in place of the immanent promises of Christ.
The Gnostics teach that the promises of Jesus concerning the resurrection and ascension of human beings are indeed immanent, but spiritual and interior rather than physical and external in nature. To the Gnostic, ascension is an interior ascent of transcendence into higher states of consciousness, described as realms existing beyond this physical world and yet in some mysterious way shining through it. Historians of philosophy and religion call this form of experience ascensional mysticism, yet all that is called ascensional mysticism does not have the indelibly transformative character of the Gnostic ascension. The salvific nature of the Gnostic experience of ascension has to do with the particular framework and context of the Gnostic mythos and mysteries. The character of the ascension depends entirely upon the direction and goal of the ascension, which for the Gnostic is the return to the Light.
St. Paul describes just such an ascent in his Epistle to the Corinthians:
“I knew of a man in Christ, about fourteen years ago, such was caught up to the third heaven: and I knew such a man, who whether in the body or out of the body, I cannot tell, how that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not possible for a man to utter.”
In the Chaldean Oracles this ascent in consciousness depends on the transcendence of the physical body. “Believe thyself to be out of body and so thou art; for divine things are not accessible to mortals who fix their minds on body; it is for those who strip themselves naked, who speed aloft to the height.” This focus on transcendence of the material body does not mean a despising or self-destructive denial of the flesh. Such denial is really another form of attachment and enslavement, a negative attachment in such a case, on which we are warned in the Gospel of Philip, “Fear not the flesh nor love it. If you fear it, it will gain mastery over you. If you love it, it will swallow and paralyze you.” The connection of ascension with the image of stripping oneself naked is further echoed in the Gospel of Thomas. “Jesus said: When you take off your clothing without being ashamed, and take your clothes and put them under your feet as the little children and tread on them, then shall you behold the Son of the Living One and you shall not fear.” The point here is that the transcendence of the body must be accomplished without being ashamed of the flesh. Jesus makes a metaphor to the image of little children dancing naked and free. Almost everyone has at some time in their childhood taken off their clothes and run around naked in an innocent expression of freedom and joy. For the Gnostics the ascent is not some dour hatred and fear of the flesh but a joyous and ecstatic transcendence of the limitations of bodily consciousness. If we strip ourselves naked, if we relinquish the coverings placed about us by the archons, then, in our ascent, the archons cannot detain us; they cannot even see us. We are caught up in ecstasy, which translated from the Greek means “being outside of oneself.” Ecstasy means to be out of the body and the system of which it is a manifestation. It means freedom.
Yet, the Gnostic experience of ascension is not simply an out of body experience. There are a plethora of accounts of people who have experienced traveling out of the body or journeying on the astral, who have been meditating or journeying for years, but who have not returned to the Light. These are modalities of transcendence through which individuals may experience the Enlightenment of Gnosis, but the modalities in themselves can not guarantee it, nor are they a viable substitute for the genuine experience. The spiritual ascension requires a capacity for Gnosis, an orientation toward the mysteries of the interior life, and the descent of a grace from on high. We must have that within us that can ascend and return to the Light before the light-stream can come to us and take us up. To have this within us requires a fervent desire for transcendence and freedom.
If we sincerely long for the Light the experiences will come in their own time. Yet to have this longing, to truly ascend, we must remember the place from which we have come. To acquire this desire requires a wakefulness to the memory of the higher glories beyond this world. As Mani so beautifully states, “Remember the ascent into the joyful air…” It may not be possible for us to fully return to the Light while we are in this embodied existence, but we can receive a small taste, a whiff of the essence of this ascent, enough for us to remember the place from which we have come and to recognize the way back.
To awaken this memory we must open our spiritual eyes to the First Mystery, the fountainhead and source of all being. “Let the immortal depths of the soul be opened, and open all thine eyes at once to the above…” (The Chaldean Oracles) The Qabbalah describes the highest as the innermost, and so in the Pistis Sophia there is reference to the highest Aeon and the First Mystery as the Inmost of the Inmosts. “Then were all the powers of the height singing hymns to the Inmost of the Inmosts so that whole world heard their ceaseless voices.” To find this memory and this desire we must turn the powers and contemplations of our souls inward; we must recognize that the inmost core of our being is alien to the system of the world, that we are strangers to this material world.
Even then, the desire for Gnosis and the memory of the Place of Light alone is not sufficient; the ascent requires a spiritual assistance as well. The soul requires the wings of spirit to make the “flight into the sun.” The soul cannot get there on her own steam; she requires a helper. In the Apocalypse of Paul, Paul is accompanied by a helper spirit. In the Pistis Sophia, Sophia rises by means of the light-power given her by the Logos. In mainstream tradition, the Virgin Mary is assumed into the heavenly courts by her bridegroom, the Christ. In the story of the Pistis Sophia, even Jesus requires the descent of his own Light-Power to ascend into the Pleroma:
“So it was that when the Light-Power came down on Jesus it gradually surrounded him altogether. Then Jesus ascended on high, shining most exceedingly with an unmeasured light; and the disciples were gazing after him, not one of them speaking until he went up to heaven, but they were all in great silence.”
The Gnostic sources differ from the mainstream in describing the return of Jesus directly following the ascension:
“Then the heavens opened, and they saw Jesus coming down, shining most exceedingly, for he shone more than at the time he had gone up to the Heavens, so that no man of earth can speak of the light that was on him.”
He then teaches and initiates the disciples in the most profound mysteries, which they were not previously able to receive. He describes for them the aeons of light transcending the earthly sphere and gives them the grace to ascend there. The Apocalypse of Paul gives witness to such an ascension in the spirit:
“And then the seventh heaven opened and we went up to the Ogdoad, And I saw the twelve apostles. They greeted me, and we went up to the ninth heaven. I greeted those who were in the ninth heaven, and we went up to the tenth heaven. And I greeted my fellow spirits.”
At the highest heaven he greets his fellow spirits. This too is what we must remember for ourselves; that we have a fellowship of spiritual beings to which we truly belong, who are the company of the Highest Aeon. Through wakefulness to the memory of our origin and the grace from on high we can open our eyes to the above and glimpse that place where we are “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the Saints, and of the household of God.” We can remember the house from which we have come and ascend on high and greet our fellow spirits. In this manner we shall speed aloft to the height and join that light such as “no man of earth can speak of the light that was on him.” (The Pistis Sophia) So may that Light keep us and illumine our way back unto the Light from which we have come and unto which we shall ascend when the “consummation of all consummations taketh place,” when we see our star shine forth. Amen.
Steven Marshall is the Bishop of Queen of Heaven Gnostic Church, a parish of the Ecclesia Gnostica in Portland, Oregon.