by Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon
As we considered recently, the Church Fathers placed Psalm 23 (Hebrew 24) in the scene of the Lord’s Ascension. The dialogue in this psalm (“Who is this King of glory?), they believed, involved the angels who guarded the gates of heaven.
Indeed, Saint Irenaeus, in the course of an exposition of three psalms, believes there are two groups of angels attendant on the Ascension: those below the firmament of heaven and those above. It is worth examining his treatment in detail.
Irenaeus begins with the mystery of the Ascension in Psalm 67, quoting Paul’s interpretation of that psalm in the Epistle to the Ephesians:
“He ascended on high. He led captivity captive. He has taken and has given gifts to men.” Now this “captivity” refers to the destruction of the realm of the rebel angels. And he announced also the place from which he was to ascend from earth to heaven; “for the Lord,” he says, “in Zion has ascended on high.”
For Irenaeus this is not just a figurative mountain. He explains:
“It was on the mountain that is called ‘of the olives,’ juxtaposed to Jerusalem, after his Resurrection from the dead, that, having assembled his disciples and having instructed them concerning the kingdom of heaven, he was elevated in their sight, and they beheld how the heavens opened and received him.”
At this point in his exposition, by way of commenting on the scene in Acts, Irenaeus introduces Psalm 23:
“Again, David declares this very thing: ‘Lift up your gates, ye princes / And be lifted up, you everlasting doors, / And the King of Glory will enter!’ Now the ‘eternal gates’ are the heavens.”
To prepare for the question “Who is this King of glory?” Irenaeus mentions an element of “secrecy” attending the Incarnation; the angels guarding the gates of heaven had not detected the Word’s descent into the world:
“But because the Word came down invisible to creatures, he was not know to them in his descent.”
As incarnate, however, he was manifest to the angels here on earth. Thus, when he ascended these angels below, those angels already familiar with him,
“called to those who were above the firmament, ‘Lift up your gates, / And be lifted up, you everlasting doors, / And the King of Glory will enter!’ The latter wondered and asked, ‘Who is this?’ Then those who had already beheld him testified a second time, ‘The Lord, mighty and powerful, / He is the King of glory!'”
Having thus joined Psalm 23 to Psalm 67 in this Ascension motif, Irenaeus follows the lead of Justin by introducing Psalm 109 (Hebrew 110) to complete the glorification of Christ by including his enthronement at at God’s right hand:
“And as he is risen and ascended, he ever awaits at the Father’s right hand the time for judgment appointed by the Father, when his enemies will be made subject to him. These enemies were all those found to be in rebellion, the angels and archangels and principalities and thrones who contemned the truth. David, moreover, the same prophet declared as follows: ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “‘Sit at My right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.'” (Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching 83-85)
Irenaeus was not the only Church Father to find two groups of angels in the scene of the Ascension. For instance, Athanasius of Alexandria commented on Psalm 23 in a text unusually rich:
“‘Lift up your gates, ye princes.’ As he is taken up, those angels who served the Savior on earth made it plain (delousin) to the heavenly powers so that they should open the gates. ‘The Lord, mighty and powerful.’ The angels serving as hosts (xsenizontai) see him in flesh (meta sarkos) animated with a cognitive soul (empsychomenes psyches noeras). Therefore they inquire, ‘Who is this King of glory?’ The powers on high (hai ano dynameis) are frightened at the wonder of the Dispensation (to paradoxson tes Oikonomias). ‘The Lord of hosts, / He is the king of Glory!’ Those angels who ascend with him initiate (mystagogousai) those on high in the Mystery, namely, that he is the King of glory who conquered the spiritual enemies” (Expositions of the Psalms 23).
Other Church Fathers, including Gregory of Nyssa and Ambrose of Milan, offered similar expositions of the “angelic dialogue” in Psalm 23.