Read by Br. Sean Glenn

O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before. —Collect for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

One of the graces of this season spent in quarantine has been the lectionary’s course of readings through St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. The narrative is at once dense and frenetic, while also a source of great comfort. We read of disciples not so different from you and me. People who faced gargantuan challenges and struggled with the solid weight of human poverty, weakness, and finitude—of going to bed each night completely and helplessly ignorant of any of the possibilities that God might give with the sun’s rise. I can only fantasize about the tenor of the prayers that Jesus’ little community must have prayed in the days between Ascension and Pentecost.

We know the rest of the story, and perhaps that can tempt us to presumption. It is easy for us to overlook the yawning jaws of despair that likely followed at the heels of Jesus’ followers after his ascension, hungry for their fear. Tempting them to rely on themselves. Begging them to deny God’s faithfulness. Yes, we know the rest of the story, but even the gift of hindsight is just that, a gift. Yes, we know that in a week’s time God’s faithfulness—however providentially awkward[1]—will be attested by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. A faithfulness, which will change the course of history. Yet I cannot help but wonder what the followers of Jesus must have made of God’s faithfulness during that strange, silent hinge between Ascension and Pentecost.

‘The Lord is risen indeed,’ we can imagine them thinking, ‘and yet now he is in the Father’s presence, “high above all rule and authority, power and dominion.”[2] We’re left with an enigmatic message, but no power to communicate it. He—the Word behind all words—had the power alone to help us know and understand. And while he promised he will be with us “even to the end of the age,”[3] he—along with that palpable taste of heaven that followed on his heels—is no longer among us as we had expected or anticipated. We are alone. We are left comfortless. What on earth can tomorrow bring?’

I am reminded lately of my first encounter with the artwork of Alfred Hrdlicka, an Austrian artist who was born in 1928. A friend and I had made the long subway ride to a small Evangelische church in the isolated Plötzensee district of Berlin. This church, along with the Roman Catholic conventual church, Mary Queen of the Martyrs, next door, were built in the late 60s as memorials to the more than 2,000 political prisoners who were executed in a shed on the grounds of the Plötzensee prison during the Nazi dictatorship. Yet another story of gargantuan challenges, comfortless human finitude, and an apparent withdrawal of God. Yet another story whose voices can only offer us hope when colored by the gift of hindsight.

The Evangelische Gemeindezentrum Plötzensee (Protestant Community Center of Plötzensee) is home to a series of charcoal panels entitled Totentanz or Dance of Death, completed by Hrdlicka in 1974. These are what we had come to see.

As a theme in art, the Totentanz became significant in the imaginations of Christians living through the centuries when plague ravaged Europe. Although this period is replete with mystics who could sense amid the turmoil the rich love of God available to all in every moment, it is also time when God’s comfort—God’s strength—must  surely have felt, for many, distant, if not entirely withdrawn. Totentanzen litter artwork of this period, and are notable for the way they treat the ever-present companion of death. Death, usually a skeletal figure, dances with all—rich, poor, men, women, children, upending and redefining the stable rhythms and relationships of life. Hrdlicka’s work echoes many tropes of the traditional Totentanz, yet he sets his scenes in the prison shed of Plötzensee, mixing scenes from the Passion and Resurrection with images of the distinctive brutality of the twentieth century. Death never appears personified—Hrdlicka’s human subjects manage the task on their own.

Coronavirus has forced many of to confront the dreadful existential realities that have plagued our sisters and brothers around the world since well before the Word behind all words ever walked the earth. Like the dance partners of the medieval Totentanz and the anonymous, prison-uniformed figures of Hrdlicka’s charcoal panels, we find ourselves more aware of our finitude and with it all the intricate contingencies of every connection in our lives. Like the community of Jesus’ friends in the days after the Ascension, we may find ourselves comfortless, vulnerable, helplessly ignorant of any of the possibilities that God might have in store, faced with gargantuan challenges and daily choices that could have consequences far beyond our own imagining—both for good and for ill.

Amid the challenges, the temptations to self-reliance, and the frothy seas of doubt and fear, I am thankful that St. Luke felt it necessary to write these words:

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying. […] All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.[4]

In the existential jaws of this providential gap between Ascension and Pentecost, Luke tell us that those closest to Jesus returned to a place where his presence had been palpable and significant—the upper room. The site of the last meal they ate before his death. Where he washed their feet, where they shared intimacy with him, where they hid after his execution, and where he had revealed himself to them after he had risen. Where he had provided for them in the past.

There they devoted themselves to prayer. I have to imagine they must have prayed full of hopes and memories. Hopes for promises made. Hopes for dreams undreamed. Memories of provision and surprise, of betrayal and forgiveness. Memories of a Love that reached out in flesh to reveal its Name: True Vine, Bread of Life, Good Shepherd, The Way, The Truth, and The Life. When the next step in God’s story looks as if it will have to be taken in darkness and ignorance, Luke invites us to rest in the knowledge of what God has already done for us. “Go to your upper room,” says Luke, “and pray with God’s former faithfulness as you walk into God’s future faithfulness, trusting that his present faithfulness supplies the strength you need. Even if it may appear dark, or unwelcome, or comfortless.”

Amen.


[1] An allusion to the opening lines of a hymn by Carl P. Daw, Jr.: “Praise God, whose providential awkwardness / defies our human power of scrutiny.”

[2] Ephesians 1:21

[3] Matthew 28:20

[4] Acts 1:6—14

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