Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
Before I entered monastic life, I experienced the Ascension in both its scriptural telling and its liturgical observance a bit the same way I experienced a lay-over between flights. Why this seemingly unnecessary stop on the journey from Easter to Pentecost – and so close to our final destination? Jesus had risen. Why did he now need to go up still farther – to a Heaven I certainly believe in but did not (and do not) regard to be “up” at all? In the monastery, where scripture rains from above and seeps up from below until it gets inside you, it was clear that the Ascension meant more – much, much more than I had assumed. But it still felt like an irritant – a grain of sand that might produce a pearl – one day.
My relationship with the Ascension is now very different. I now delight to get off the Easter-to-Ascension plane, stretch my legs, and take in the breath-taking view before climbing aboard for the Ascension-to-Pentecost leg of the journey. I understand why lay-overs and way-stations are necessary on long journeys – and what they can do to shift the perspective of the traveler toward the terrain. I understand that “direct flights” in the spiritual life are available only to angels. I do not understand the Ascension, anymore than I can levitate – or fly. But I love the Ascension because I love the Ascended Christ and I sense now more than ever what his Ascension means for us here below.
It’s Easter Day! Today our Lord Jesus Christ has been raised gloriously from the dead. Alleluia! Today is a day for rejoicing. He is Risen: Alleluia!
But on Monday, just six days ago, I was not rejoicing. I was tearful. I was staring in shock and stunned silence – as you may have been too – watching those pictures of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burning. I first went to Notre Dame when I was 14; I was staying with my pen friend’s family in Paris. I was struck dumb, even at that age, with the beauty, the colour and light, the sheer holinessof the place. I remember we lit candles, and sat gazing in wrapt silence at a great rose window, shimmering like a jewel.
Throughout most of my life, as a parish priest in England, I tried to go back most years to Notre Dame, to light candles and pray for friends and parishioners who were sick or in need. Back to the place where for me, in Eliot’s words, “prayer had been valid.”
So it was heartbreaking to see this place of beauty and loveliness where I have for years felt so close to God, mauled and wounded and ravaged by fire.
“It is finished.”[i]
Logically, there should be no more to say. “It is finished.” The altar is naked, the flame extinguished, the holy water dried up.
And yet, we linger here where powerful truths have been expressed and ineffable mysteries suggested.
The Truth: that the Love of God risks everything, forsakes all sense, abandons natural order, acts contrary to human expectation. We read in this truth the voluntary self-gift of God’s only-begotten Son “into the hands of sinners” that he fashioned from clay.
And the Truth: that the Love of God can – and shall – convert every instrument of death that cruel humans can invent into a key that opens the door to Life. We read this truth in the Cross that bore his Body.
And the Truth: that the Love of God endures the worst imaginable suffering. Through this, not in spite of this, as a ray of light pierces the darkest storm cloud, God’s glory is made manifest. We read this truth in the flesh of Jesus Christ: beaten, bleeding, broken, dying…drawing all people to himself.
Maundy Thursday. If you’re anything like me, you may have to be reminded each year what the word “maundy” means; it’s not a word that comes up in everyday conversations. “Maundy” is derived from the Latin word mandatum, from which we get our English word “mandate.” Mandatum, then, refers to a mandate or a command. In the context of tonight’s liturgy, it is tied to Jesus’ words in John 13:34, where he gives his disciples a mandatum novum, a “new command,” namely, to love one another as he has loved them.
What’snewabout that? we might ask. After all, hasn’t God always been a God of love, and haven’t God’s people always been instructed to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself”? (Luke 10:27)[ii]This command did not originate with Jesus and his followers; it was deeply embedded in the religious tradition they practiced.[iii]
The command itself isn’t new, but the radical wayin which Jesus teaches and embodies it surprises and challenges Jesus’ disciples; it goes beyond their expectations[iv]:
“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.”[i]In dying, we live. Anything would be more palatable. Nothing is so essential. We must surrender, losing and letting go, being vulnerable again and again, dying to ourselves in order to live. This Holy Week we face Jesus on the cross.
When serving as a hospital chaplain, I found it exhausting continually listening to heartache. One day I realized Jesus was listening to the same heartache yet not for a few minutes per person and not just how many people I met. Jesus knows everyone and listens to all hearts, to everyone sick and dying, to all who are grieving, to each in any kind of suffering, and indeed to us all. Jesus draws the whole world to himself with a loving ear in a listening embrace.
All of us need and glory in the cross. Jesus invites each to die to self-sufficiency and secrecy. Jesus invites us to pray the whole truth of our lives, naming what weighs us down, our grief and questions, our wounds and concerns, as well as joys, thanks, and desires. Jesus listens directly and in the flesh through other people. Jesus, exposed and vulnerable on the cross, invites us to expose ourselves, share our inner life and struggles, pray in the dark, and pray our hearts.
Telling our stories can be painful, like touching wounds, a kind of death. Like wheat dying to bear fruit, safe exposure of our story heals. We like to edit, restrict, categorize, or deny our lives. Good listeners help by attending to our stories with their surprises, seeming contradictions, and scattered pieces. Listeners help us hear how these pieces together form us.
In Jesus’ day, palms were carried in joyful, triumphant processions by Jews and Romans alike. Roman soldiers, returning from a successful conquest, would wave palms as they returned home to their welcome. Jews used palm adornments for their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to the Festival of Tabernacles. And palm decorations were carved in stone within the Temple. Palms symbolized an oasis in the desert, victory in public games and in conquests, and a sign of blessing and homage.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem replicates how the Roman Emperor and his emissaries would enter the city: on a roadway strewn with palms, and with the crowds waving palms, shouting their praise. The crowds welcoming Jesus are shouting, “Hosanna,” which, in Hebrew, means “savior.” “Savior” is the very title already claimed by the Roman Emperor. The Roman Emperor’s titles included the “Savior of the World,” and “Son of God,” and “Lord of Lords.”[i] That’s the Roman Emperor. Unlike the Emperor and his party, whose processional entry would be on magnificent Persian stallions, Jesus is on a donkey.
Four days ago we finally began our Lenten pilgrimage after a long Epiphanytide. For a solid eight weeks following the Epiphany we have celebrated all the ways Jesus was made manifest as the messiah to the world and have studied how these stories help us recognize how Jesus is made manifest in our midst today. Wednesday, we received our invitation to a holy Lent, had ashes placed on our foreheads to remind us of our mortality, and we are now at the first Sunday in Lent.
As you might have gathered from our gospel lesson from Luke this morning, things have gotten really serious, very quickly! No sooner has Jesus come up from the waters of his baptism, he hears an affirmation of his identity from his Heavenly Father, and the Holy Spirit descends upon him. In a sense, Jesus has an epiphany and is filled with the Holy Spirit, which then leads him into the harsh Judean desert where the gospel writer says that he was tempted by the devil for forty days. Now, think about that for a moment: even though only three of Satan’s challenges are recorded in the lesson, Luke is quite clear that he is tempted for forty days, all the while with no provision of food or sustenance.
I do not know about you, but I am not encouraged by starting out on these forty days of Lent with a story of Jesus being subjected to mental and physical abuse by the devil! This may explain why Lent is not at the top of my list of favorite Liturgical seasons, especially since my track record with temptation is pretty dismal. I know you may find that hard to believe, but I am the guy who gives up craft beer for Lent and by week two I have succumbed to the desert heat and am quenching my thirst with a cold, refreshing IPA straight from the devil’s hand! In my frustration and disappointment with myself, I try to make myself feel better by thinking of something I can give up the next year where I might actually have success, like perhaps, asparagus. Nothing banishes temptation quite like asparagus. Yet to give up something that would not be challenging is to set out on an ‘adventure in missing the point’; the point being that temptation is a part of our everyday experience. Saint Antony, one of the first of the desert monastics was recorded as saying: “This is the great task of man, that he should hold his sin before the face of God, and count upon temptation until his last breath.”[i]
Today is Shrove Tuesday. You probably also know it as Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday. The fact that these two names can apply to the same day might surprise you. Shrove Tuesday comes from the verb, “to shrive,” that is, to confess. The weeks immediately preceding Lent, known historically as Shrovetide, were a time for the faithful to recollect, to soberly recall their sins, to confess those sins, and to receive absolution, all in preparation for the penitence of Lent. Fat Tuesday, on the other hand, calls to mind rich food and drink; we can think of pancakes or Carnival or a more general disposition toward partying hard. These two ideas seem to go together like water and oil. But to understand why they’re linked, it’s helpful to think back to where we’ve been in this past liturgical season. The day of Epiphany, and the weeks that follow, are full of revelation and celebration. The light of the star over Bethlehem, the Presentation of the infant Jesus to the Temple, Jesus turning water into wine, and just this Sunday, Christ’s Transfiguration. “In your light we see light,” the psalmist writes, and indeed, these weeks of light offer revelation and celebration to the world.
But maybe more evocative of this time between Epiphany and Lent than any other holy day is the Baptism of Christ, by John in the Jordan River. There are several reasons why. Perhaps most clearly, it is Christ’s Baptism that immediately precedes his 40-day fast in the wilderness. But more than that, as Jesus recounts in today’s Gospel lesson, the faithful came to the river and received the baptism of John, that is, a baptism of repentance, and in doing so, came to understand the justice of God, and received it with praise. They entered into repentance and found the joy of the kingdom of Heaven, the joy of Christ. They went in following John, the strenuous fasting prophet, and came out with the understanding that this sober-minded repentance pointed toward Jesus, the one who comes eating and drinking, celebrating with his friends as a bridegroom celebrates with his wedding guests.
Feast of the Epiphany – January 6, 2019
The prophecy of Isaiah is revealed in Bethlehem. The early church saw today’s celebration as a revelation: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you… Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” The kings come. The three kings from foreign lands come to Bethlehem. The New Testament Greek name for them is “magoi” or, as we would say, “magi,” which means “fortune tellers” or “wizards.”[i] (The English word, “magician,” comes from the Greek, magi.) The Greek name magi also includes astrologers, and so it’s no wonder that the magi reportedly saw a certain star rising, knew it was significant, and followed it. What was this star? There’s been endless speculation down through the centuries, some of it based on the Zodiac, some of it based on astronomy.[ii]The Gospel according to Matthew makes neither explanation nor apology for revealing that the wise men had followed a star.
Most people will say that they remember exactly where they were and whom they were with at the time of an epic historical event, such as a tragedy or something shocking and unbelievable. Usually it is when the life of the world is altered in a split second, leaving no one unchanged. My mother would tell the story of how, as a young teenager, she was at Junior All-County Band clinic when she and the other students found out that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. In my own lifetime, the Challenger disaster and of course 9/11 are etched in my mind in vivid detail. Not only was 9/11 shocking, but it invoked a great deal of fear that shook the world. No one was the same after that day and we all recalled our stories to each other as we tried to process our emotions and begin the very long journey to healing.
I imagine that this is probably the experience of the shepherds in our gospel lesson from Luke this morning. This particular evening was just another speck in the sea of time, poised to be like all the others, keeping watch over the sheep in their care. These men were country dwellers who lived on the margins of society. To the temple leaders and social elite, they were among the dregs of society, unclean due to the nature of their profession. Because their jobs allowed them little time away, they were unable to make the appropriate temple sacrifices with any kind of regularity. They were literal outcasts because they tended the flocks in the rural regions on the perimeter of town. Yet, it was their job to see to the well-being of sheep that were most likely to be presented in the temple for sacrifice by people who could afford it.