thinking theology

Archive for the ‘Ascension’ Category

Seeds at the Cross to New Wine

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 

— John 12:24 —

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 

— 1 Corinthians 15: 35-38 —

These two passages offer very significant clues for thinking about the season from Good Friday to Pentecost. They help us move away from literalism to a rich understanding of Jesus the Christ and of how his resurrection is a promise for us and for all.

On Good Friday, the first disciples were overwhelmed with the awareness that their teacher and friend, their mentor, was in fact as human as they. He died in a particularly gruesome and humiliating fashion. No lightning bolts came to save him. He died with us, sharing even fear and pain with us. For me, this has always been an important insight, a reality that demands that we are born and that we die: some of us easily, some of us horribly. Nothing can save us. We are designed for death. But maybe we are also designed for resurrection!

When family and friends first encountered the risen Messiah, you will remember that they did not recognize him. He had been transformed. It is in relationship that his nature was revealed to followers, sometimes immediately, as in the garden with Mary; sometimes later, after he left the dinner and prayers in Emmaus. Although his presence seemed concrete and corporeal, he was able to appear and disappear mysteriously. All the post-resurrection stories happen only with his followers. There is no mention of any encounters with strangers, enemies, or other friends. John Dominic Crossan (Resurrecting Easter) has pointed out that the Eastern Church maintained its commitment to the idea of a corporate resurrection as the important idea, whereas the Western Church became focussed on personal salvation. Of course, both belong together. It is not possible to conceive of isolation in the company of Christ. Everything happens in community, but it also leads to individual experience. 

Which brings us to the story of the Ascension, a story that is limited by a shift in our knowledge base and the literalism of our era. Buckminster Fuller calls the whole story into question with his famous perspective that in a round world, there is neither up nor down. So if not an up and down movement, than what do we make of this tale? I believe the story of the ascension has everything to do with grief and empowerment. 

Many people who are grieving say quietly that they have either seen their loved one or that they experience their presence. There is a Netflix series call “After Life” about a man struggling grimly with his grief, so much that he views videos of his deceased wife, over and over. Eventually, he is able to move beyond his personal pain to acknowledge that the world still exists and instead of fighting it or hiding from it, he can be a force of compassion and wisdom. 

The ascension story might be about the disciples releasing their grief and their personal sense of disempowerment in order to become the church. Unless the seed falls into the ground…. And that seed is the misdirected hopes, the keenness of feeling abandoned, the confusion around the choices that those first disciples must have felt. Also, the time had come to reassess who Jesus could be for them in the present, rather than clinging to the beloved leader of the past. 

One trajectory for this story is to understand the ascension as the movement from Jesus the mortal, the man, to Jesus, filled with the Spirit of the Holy One, as the Christ; Jesus, the one anointed to show the world that death is a gateway not an abyss. The Christ who — through his transformation from the Beloved to the Christ — becomes for us the sign of inclusivity, and who combines all the knowledge of the suffering and joy of humanity with the cosmic wisdom of the Spirit of the Holy One. 

Jesus, the man of history, would have been an influence but would not be such a world-shaking experience without his transformation. The disciples could not have become the church without turning away from gazing into the skies, waiting for an unrealistic dream. Instead, they look at each other, at their world, at the circumstances of their lives, and they begin to plan their next steps as the followers of Jesus, now the Christ. 

On the day of Pentecost, the story of the gathering of the disciples, for the first time as the Body of Jesus, transforms them also into the body of the risen Christ, no longer limited by other knowledge, or false hope. For themselves and for the witnesses, they become people who — like Jesus himself — reach out to all people, regardless of status or ethnicity. They are filled with the wine of vision and new hope. They come to believe that they have not been abandoned at all but, like the earthly Jesus, they have been anointed for the work of transforming others with compassion, hope, and healing. 

They no longer look like those first fishermen. They are no longer seeds planted in hope, but food for a hungry world.

They discover abilities they did not know they had. They become orators, motivational speakers, powerful in prayer and in the radical messages of acceptance and the destiny of humanity. The gospels certainly are about love, but about a tough love, one that has endured suffering, that has experienced the pain of becoming new, that has had to leave the past behind to grasp for an awe-filled, unbelievable promise. Through these disciples Pentecost calls: “Follow him with us and discover that death is a gate and there is so much more to life than we can know in one lifetime.”

Pentecost is the promise that if we open our minds and our emotions, we too can be filled with the new wine of promise and the courage to live our lives with openness and authenticity. Pentecost is a story about finding the Holy as an experience that comes for those who allow themselves to live on the other side of platitudes and vulnerability. 

“God loves us already and has from our very beginning. The Christian life is not about believing or doing what we need to believe or do so that we can be saved. Rather, it is about seeing what is already true: that God loves us already and then beginning to live in this relationship. It is about becoming conscious of and intentional about a deepening relationship with God.” (Marcus Borg)

At the heart of the institutional church, the Holy Spirit still burns and stirs, no matter how deeply we may from time to time have embedded it in stone and statutes. The wild Spirit will break out and demand freedom and justice, hope and healing, compassion and vision beyond our knowing. 

And from the late Judy Cannato (Radical Amazement), mystic and believer:

Our knowing what we know is an act of self transcendence, and our acting upon what we have learned will lead to greater consciousness still. . . . . We must accept accept the power and grace that is in the emerging universe. . . .This is our moment. Let us live connected and in love. . . .

Advertisements

Neither Up nor Away

Every ascension day, I remind people that there is neither up nor down in a round universe. Jesus also said there was neither first nor last in the domain of God. These are round images, spiral images that are not bound by beginnings and endings.

Part of the good news is teaching us not to let ourselves be caught in absolutes or dualities. In the good news there is only becoming and being born into new understandings of complexity, of paradox. A lot of folks find this uncomfortable and would prefer just single answers to tough questions, but if you notice, Jesus never gives straight answers because he understands the purpose of the sky-space-dark-galaxyquestion. The question leads to deeper awareness, deeper sense of the mystery of life, deeper awe and humility that we are even invited to reflect upon the vast nature and being of the Holy.

The path from Easter to Pentecost is, in one way, the story of the disciples of Jesus moving from literalism to the freedom of metaphor and image. To experience the divine is usually to be struck with wonder. There is no language but awe for an encounter with the divine. Nonetheless, being creatures of language, we must use imagery to express these moments.

The various Easter stories tell of a variety of ways people come to understand the continuing presence of Jesus in their lives. The story of the ascension of Jesus marks a shift in consciousness. After anyone we love dies, we often attach ourselves to the things that remind us of them. In my case: my father’s hat, my mother’s kitchen tools and recipe book. In the process of grieving, we gradually release our physical connection to them. This is an essential stage because then we can let them live within our hearts and memory. Unless we break the physical connection and open ourselves to an eternal connection that is love and spirit, we cannot move on with the new learning that will present itself to us.

I think the story of the ascension is about this phenomenon of letting go of Jesus the man. In the church’s liturgy, the next event is Pentecost in which all is spirit and innovation, energy and communication, wind and flame, inspiration and possibility. Jesus becomes the parable for how God can inhabit human life when we open ourselves to the Divine Presence.

Why indeed are we staring into a past event rather than preparing ourselves for the big event for which Jesus has tried to prepare us: the passion of God sweeping through the world making all things new. And more amazing, we are the agents of this incredible ongoing event.

I want to end with excerpts from the 9th Ode of Solomon:

You exist, always beckoning to your servants
You renew me, by holding me in your light
I am like land deep and happy in its orchards.
You O holy One are sunshine on the face of the land.
You take me to Paradise where I know joy
Blessed are the bearers of your living water
Praise be to you, the eternal delight of Paradise. Hallelujah

The Heart Ascending

As we move into Ascensiontide, I am thinking about Buckminster Fuller’s comment that in a round world, there is no up or down.

In an interview with Damien Simpson in 1979, he stated that “man must learn to think for himself, rather than follow blindly what he has been taught. As the astronauts stated, the words ‘up’ and ‘down’ have no meaning. The correct words are ‘out’ and ‘in’. This was confirmed when mankind learned the Earth was round, not flat.”

Nonetheless when I hear a choir singing “The Lark Ascending,” or read George Meredith’s poem, I do feel my heart lift and tears threaten to rise in my eyes. For some time, we have been too literal, too earnest. Christians, after all, are people of the parable, children of the narrative, inheritors of the songs of praise and lament. Perhaps, it’s time to release our spirits to soar with bird song, to fill our minds with less thinking and more openness to wind and wave, ebb and flow, to trust our senses as much as we trust our intellects.

I would like to reclaim Ascension Day, not as event but as discovery. The disciples experienced a discontinuity between Jesus’ life and his death. Even their post-resurrection experiences must have been as confusing as they were comforting. Ascension Day marks the shift from perplexity about the role of a dead/not dead leader, to awareness of an intimate presence. In terms of constructed reality, the shift of consciousness moves to the possibility that life is not at all predictable or fixed.

The disciples discovered that the impossible is a problem of perspective rather than data. To manage their grief and loss, they focused on fear, the mind killer, and flight, the blurring of the moment. Until they could be still and contemplate the mystery of relationship, love stronger than the grave, their hearts could not find consolation or courage.

I love to visit the church garden where we placed my parents’ ashes. I feel their presence and I am comforted in my heart, although my mind knows that the ashes have long since disappeared into the earth and they are not there in any obviously discernible way. And yet my heart…

As a priest, I have experienced a sense of my hands within those of Jesus whenever I celebrate. The power of the experience is always breath taking and it happens unfailingly. With the other worshippers, my soul ascends in praise and humility at this privilege. Is it measurable? No, of course not. And yet, my heart…

I have four children, all now in their middle years, and somehow, still young to me and vulnerable. Every parent knows how full we are of these people who came to us and whom we love more than our own lives. When I look at them, I see their baby faces, and their teen posturings; I see their joys and their sorrows; I see age beginning to touch them softly now. I see my version of them. Is it the whole story? Of course not. And yet, my heart….

Some experiences in life belong to the soul, called the heart by ancient Egyptians. And these experiences open our minds to consider new understanding, the excitement of discovery/invention, and renewed action. We cannot help but spill over into compassionate action, into loving confrontation, into humble peace keeping when we have seen the planet from space, tasted the ocean, climbed the mountain, opened our heart to the heart of the earth. And so, my heart is rising still.

 

excerpts from The Lark Ascending by George Meredith

….For singing till his heaven fills,
’T is love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
….Our valley is his golden cup,
And he the wine which overflows
To lift us with him as he goes:
The woods and brooks, the sheep and kine
He is, the hills, the human line,
The meadows green, the fallows brown,
The dreams of labor in the town;
He sings the sap, the quicken’d veins;
The wedding song of sun and rains
He is, the dance of children, thanks
Of sowers, shout of primrose-banks,
And eye of violets while they breathe;
All these the circling song will wreathe,
And you shall hear the herb and tree,

….So touching purest and so heard
In the brain’s reflex of yon bird;
Wherefore their soul in me, or mine,
Through self-forgetfulness divine,
In them, that song aloft maintains,
To fill the sky and thrill the plains
With showerings drawn from human stores,
As he to silence nearer soars,
Extends the world at wings and dome,
More spacious making more our home,
Till lost on his aërial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

 

A Eucharistic Prayer for Travellers to Emmaus and Beyond

Presider: Be joyful as you go.
All: We rejoice in the presence of Jesus with us.
Presider: Let us give thanks to the Maker of the universe.
All: We give thanks for the journey to new life.
Presider: God of the journey into new places, with new people and new challenges, we remember that you made us in your image. We are yours and you are our beginning and our home. When people hurt themselves and each other, you weep with us. When we forget to care for the world and its creatures, you call us back to your way of healing and peace.
When we see your beauty in creation, we are reminded that all the earth praises the Holy One, with angels and all the saints, singing,

Sanctus (A time to remember Jesus)
Presider: Gracious God, you travelled with the families of the earth as they crossed deserts and rivers, as they found new homes and were exiled from those homes. You have been our God from everlasting and you abide with us in times of peace and plenty, and in times of war and want.

In Jesus, you gave humanity a servant healer, who would teach us to love you and each other. He consoled the downcast and taught a new vision of human society to those who would hear. He made friends with the beautiful and the unpopular. He challenged the oppressors of his time and encouraged those without political power.

On the night before his trial, Jesus, at supper with his friends, took bread, gave you thanks, broke the bread, gave it to them, and said, “Take and eat: this my body given for you; do this for the remembrance of me.”

After supper he took the cup of wine, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them and said, “Drink this, all of you,” as a sign of his life, given as the covenant of love and forgiveness for everyone. He said, “Whenever you drink it, remember me.”

(A time to remember Jesus)

We give thanks for the life of Jesus that lifts our eyes to new life and new possibilities for all people and for the earth, our home.

All:
 At this table, we proclaim your life, Loving Jesus, while you are coming into our hearts.

Presider:
 Bless these gifts O Holy One, and fill us with your Spirit, that we may follow Jesus in sorrow and in joy as we travel beyond the cross. May the resurrection of all hope and dreaming extend from this table to fill the world with love. Through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, in unity with the Holy Spirit, all praise belongs to you O Maker of all.

All:
 Amen, amen, amen! Amen, amen, amen!