Psalm 67 is traditionally linked to the Solemnity of Ascension. It resounds in the Liturgy of the Hours and in the Antiphons of this day. One of the Responsories of the third night sang thus:
Ascendens in altum alleluia captivam duxit captivitatem dedit dona hominibus alleluia
Ascending on high, hallelujah, he has taken captivity captive, and given gifts to men alleluia alleluia (Ps 67:19).
It is easy to grasp the Christological value of this text and, in fact, Augustine says: "Christo ergo sine dubitatione dictum est: -Ascendisti in altum-" (Undoubtedly Christ is being spoken of here when it is said: "He ascended on high". Ps 67:19).
The liturgy, however, changes that text and seems to take up Paul's own words in the Epistle to the Ephesians:
Propter quod dicit: "Ascendens in altum captivam duxit captivitatem,
dedit dona hominibus". Illud autem " ascendit " quid est, nisi quia et descendit in inferiores partes terrae? Qui descendit, ipse est et qui ascendit super omnes caelos, ut impleret omnia.
(This is why it is written: "He ascended into heaven and took captivity captive, and distributed gifts to men. But what does the word "ascended" mean, if not that he had first descended here on earth? He who descended is the same who also ascended above all the heavens, to fill all things. (Eph 4:7-10)
Ascendens (ascending) is a present participle that shows an action that is actually taking place before those celebrating the Lord's Ascension. It is the power of the liturgy that, recalling the stages of salvation history, sings and contemplates a hodie (a today) that goes beyond time by celebrating in time.
Hodie secreta caeli caro Christi petiit hodie factum est magnum angelorum gaudium quia filius excelsi jam immortalis in regnum patris sui gloriosus advenit alleluia.
Today the flesh of Christ reaches the secrets of heaven. Today there is great joy among the angels,
For the son of the Most High, already immortal, arrives glorious in the kingdom of his Father.
For this reason, then, the Introit of the Mass cannot but give voice to the Angels who now tell us, the new men of Galilelah:
quid admiramini aspicientes in caelum? Alleluia.
Quemadmodum vidistis eum ascendentem in caelum. Alleluia, alleluia.
Men of Galilee, why do you stand amazed looking up to heaven? hallelujah: in the same way that you saw him ascend to heaven, so shall he return, hallelujah. (Acts 1:11)
In thehodie (today) liturgical theAscendens (he who ascends) meets the aspicientes (those who look on).
As often happens in the surprising game of allusions and connections between liturgical texts, the text of the Ascension Introit seems to echo the Responsory that opens the Antiphonary:
Aspiciens a longe
ecce video Dei potentiam venientem,
et nebulam totam terram tegentem.
Ite obviam ei, et dicite:
nuntia nobis, si tu es ipse
Qui regnaturus es in populo Israel.
(Looking from afar,
behold I see the coming power of God,
and a cloud covering the whole earth.
Go to him and say:
"tell us if it is you
who will reign over the people of Israel").
The faithful, who in prayer have always looked away with their eyes fixed on the heavenly realities, now contemplate the Mystery of Christ ascending into heaven with his flesh.
The cloud also had a strong symbolic value.
"Nubes enim significat gratiam, quia sine nube, id est sine gratia, nullus potest ascendere"
(The cloud, in fact, signifies grace since without the cloud, i.e. without grace, no one can ascend).
In medieval iconography we can actually see how Christ does not ascend without the hand of the Father grasping him to take him to heaven.
This hand of the Father that raptures to Heaven is offered, in Christ, to all humanity. And this explains the need to reiterate in the hymn as its own: secreta caeli caro Christi petiit (the flesh of Christ has reached the secrets of Heaven).
The Vespers Hymn Salutis humanae Sator (Author of the salvation of men) agreed with this and sang to the divine Sator (Sower) a supplication full of Hope:
Tu dux ad astra, et semita,
Sis meta nostris cordibus,
Sis lacrymarum gaudium,
Sis dulce vitæ præmium.
(Thou guide to Heaven and away,
be a goal to our hearts,
be enjoyment after tears
be sweet reward of life).
The Introit Verse is taken from Psalm 46:
Omnes gentes plaudite manibus: iubilate Deo in voce exsultationis.
Applaud, all ye nations: hail God with song and jubilation (Ps 46:2)
This verse in the context of the Ascension takes on a very special value and is intended to express the "inefabile gaudium de Ascensione"(the ineffable joy of the Ascension). Even those with little faith are called to rejoice by remembering this fact.
Why? "Si enim Christus ascendit, et nos ascendemus"(If Christ has ascended, we too shall ascend). This is the promise of the future resurrection also of our flesh, which in Christ contemplates the firstfruits of what will be.
The joy of the Ascension is sung again in the Communion Antiphon, again from that Psalm 67:
Psallite Domino, qui ascendit super caelos caelorum ad Orientem. Alleluia
(Praise the Lord who ascends above all heavens to the East, alleluia. Ps 67, 33-34)
Of the first Gregorian mode quia soli Deo cantandum est (because only to God must one sing).
As the medieval commentaries remind us, ".Fiunt enim tres processiones sollempnes in ecclesia: in die purificationis quia Anna et Symeon fecerunt processionem [...], in Ramis palmarum propter pueros, [...] tercia sollempnis processio fit in die Ascensionis Domini".
(Three solemn processions are made in the Church: on the day of the Purification because Anna and Simeon made a procession, on Palm Sunday for that of the children, and a third solemn procession is made on the day of the Ascension of the Lord).
On this day, just before Mass, the faithful wanted to imitate those 120 or so people who set out from Zion, passed through the valley of Jehoshaphat, crossed the Cedron torrent and went to the Mount of Olives. The procession also had a spiritual value: "Processio ista significat ascensum de virtute in virtutem"(this procession signifies the progress from virtue to virtue).
The procession, as it did on Palm Sunday, was accompanied by Responsories and closed with "o Rex glorie", propter illud: "ne derelinquas nos orphanos" ("O King of glory" because in its text we read: "I donot leave you orphans").
The text of this Antiphon had the value of a prayer and asked for the gift of the Spirit:
O rex gloriae Domine virtutum qui triumphator hodie super omnes caelos ascendisti ne derelinquas nos orphanos sed mitte promissum patris in nos Spiritum veritatis alleluia
O King of Glory, Lord of hosts, who today art ascended triumphant above all the heavens, do not leave us orphans, but send within us the promised of the Father, the Spirit of truth.
Since the procession following the Lord is followed by the appearance of the Angels, in some Churches "cantatur laus Angelorum"(the praise of the Angels is also sung):
Te sanctum Dominum in excelsis
laudant omnes angeli,
uno ore dicentes:
te decet hymnus, Deus.
All the angels praise Thee, holy Lord, saying with one voice: Thou deservest praise, O God.
Caught at Pentecost
The Introit Viri Galilaei belongs to the seventh mode of Gregorian Chant. The number 7 has a strong symbolic value related to the Holy Spirit and his gifts. This is precisely why Ascension is a solemn preparation for Pentecost.
The Rogations preceding the Ascension were seen as a time of sadness in view of the void that the Lord's departure would leave. The purple vestments and the penitential character also reinforced this almost farewell liturgy. The celebration of the Ascension, however, corrects these human feelings by orienting them in Christian Hope. He who ascends "does not leave us orphans". Indeed, he does more: he captures us!
Psalm 67 was abundantly commented on from this perspective. Augustine asked himself: Sed quid est: Captivasti captivitatem? (But what do the words: You have made captive captivity? Ps 67:19). The liturgy is not afraid to sing this very verse that says: Ascendisti in altum, captivam duxisti captivitatem; accepisti in donum homines (You haveascended on high, taken captivity captive, and received gifts from men).
We have already emphasised the Christological reading that sees here a link with the Lord's Ascension. Also immediate is the theme of "gift" linked to the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the imminent Pentecost.
It might be more difficult to understand 'captivity made captive'. In late antiquity and the Middle Ages, wordplay was popular and this alliteration could not go unnoticed. The prisoners are us: homines qui captivi tenebantur appellans captivitatem (the same men who were held captive are called 'captivity'). After the Resurrection there is a "new captivity", an allegory of the Church, which is freedom from the slavery of sin and which has its foundation precisely in the proclamation of the Gospel. The baptised become servants of the incarnate Word that says: "Iugum enim meum suave, et onus meum leve est"(My yoke is soft and my burden light. Mt 11:25-30).
Again Augustine asked himself in rhetorical feeling: Cur enim non sit captivitas felix? (Why can there not be a happy captivity?). Christians are called to be fishers of men, to 'catch' them precisely with the Gospel's nets of freedom. Unde Petro dictum est: Ex hoc iam homines eris capiens (For it was said to Peter: Now thou shalt catch men. Lk 5:10).
Psalm 67, again in this verse 19 says: accepisti in donum homines (you have received men as a gift). St Paul, on the other hand, says: dedit dona hominibus (you have given gifts to men). (Eph 4:7). The perspective of the text of the Epistle to the Ephesians emphasises the gift of the Holy Spirit that does not leave the Church an orphan. Psalm 67, however, completes this dynamic of mystical donation between Christ and the Church. We ourselves, in fact, are called to make our life a gift for the Lord.
How can this logic of gift be put into practice in the happy captivity of Christ's friends?
Cum igitur idem ipse dicat: Quando uni ex minimis meis fecistis, mihi fecistis; quid dubitamus eum accipere in membris suis, quae dona membra eius accipiunt?
(And, when He Himself tells us: What you did to one of these little ones of mine, you did to me (Mt 25:40), how can we doubt that it is not He Himself who receives, at the hands of His members, those gifts that His members receive)?
The Church will never be orphaned of her Lord with the gift of the Spirit who is Love and the presence of brothers to love.