By a stroke of Providence, I have been reading Anthony Esolen’s fine translation of the third book of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, which is the Paradiso, in the days leading up to this reflection. The book and accompanying notes have given me several insights into the feast that we celebrate today. In the 14th century poem, Dante imagines (though I’d like to believe he really experienced) an ascent into heaven, stopping periodically to converse with the saints that he meets along the way. Arriving at the fourth sphere of heaven, that is, the level of the Sun, Dante and his heavenly guide Beatrice encounter the spirits of the wise: scholars such St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, and others. Dante states that the brightest of these lights is Solomon, 10th c. BC king of the united Kingdom of Israel. Dante could have asked Solomon any question: perhaps something political, perhaps something that might help his native Florence. Surprisingly instead, he asks him about the resurrection of the body: since the souls of the blessed experience life with God in heaven, and thus eternal joy, won’t their bliss be lessened when their souls are reunited with their bodies, thus limiting them?
The question, though unexpected, touches on the very topic that today’s solemnity commemorates. For forty days, Jesus appeared to his disciples, further instructing them and deepening their faith. When this period is over, Jesus didn’t simply disappear; he didn’t shuffle off his mortal coil and become a pure spirit. He ascended bodily. Our Lord maintained and maintains the full human nature (body, soul, and spirit) that was joined to His divinity in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Full humanity and divinity are eternally united "unconfusedly, unalterably, undividedly, and inseparably" in the person of the Word. We get to share in this. As St. Athanasius famously states in his On the Incarnation of the Word, "God became man so that man might become like God." The Solemnity of the Ascension reveals that it is not just our souls that partake in God’s life, but our bodies also.
Thus, returning to Dante’s question to Solomon, the wise king replies, "When, blessed and glorified, / the flesh is robed about us once again, / we shall be lovelier for being whole." Our being joined with our bodies at the Resurrection completes the project of salvation by completing us. Somehow infinite joy is increased. Dante makes the following beautiful and homely observation about the heavenly spirits who hear Solomon’s answer, "So prompt and ready was the loud 'Amen!'/ both choirs responded, it was clear to me / how much they yearned to see their flesh again, / Maybe less for themselves than for their mamas, / their fathers, and the others they held dear / before they had become eternal flames." The disembodied souls of the saints, though enraptured by the beatific vision, desire to be reunited to their bodies because they know that their happiness can only grow in that reintegration, and one aspect of that happiness is that parents and children will be together again bodily. What joyful hope!
Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and true Man.
—Dr. James Arinello is a religious studies and history teacher.
1. Council of Chalcedon (451).
2. Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, tr. Anthony Esolen (New York: The Modern Library, 2004), c. 14, ll. 43-45.
3. Ibid. ll. 61-66.