My first encounter with a true mountain range occurred at age sixteen. These mountains were the Austrian Alps, so it was quite the introduction. The summer moon was full, and their peaks were crowned with gleaming snow. Tears of pure wonder streamed down my face. God’s power was written in such large figures and I was so small, but in that smallness I felt significant. I fell to my knees.
My presence in that Austrian valley on that summer night was a wonder in itself. Months before, my high school chamber choir director had announced plans for the choir to go on tour to Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic. The price of the trip was unaffordable for me; paying my school tuition already entailed sacrifice for my parents. I took this news in stride, though as the school year progressed, it became clear that I was the only student in the thirty-member choir who would not be going, and my sense of belonging felt fragile. One morning, a telegram (of all things!) arrived at our front door with a cryptic, unsigned message. Someone wanted to pay my way, on the condition that they remain anonymous. The courier awaited my reply. I accepted humbly and gratefully… but the identity of this benevolent stranger continued to puzzle me for weeks. I suspected anyone and everyone. Everything took on the quality of a gift: a gift I did not earn and no longer took for granted. I had been honored by the generosity of a king in disguise.
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.
Feast of Christ the King: Proper 29A
Ezekiel 34: 11 – 16, 20 – 24
Ephesians 1: 15 – 23
Matthew 25: 31 – 46
We all know that a shift has taken place in the world, and we see it most clearly in last year’s election in this country and the BREXIT referendum in the UK. The shift appears to be away from a global, universal outlook to a more individual, nationalist one. Me First appears to be the watchword, and that has become true about nations as well as individuals. We see this in foreign as well as domestic policy, ranging from trade, to immigration, to security, to health, to education, to gun laws, to the environment, to civil and human rights. We see this as society becomes more stratified and neighbourhoods and communities more uniform. We are losing, or perhaps have lost, our concern for the other and appear to live in a culture that says that I can do whatever I want, and the other person, or neighbourhood, or nation, simply doesn’t matter. Some political commentators see evidence of this, not just at one end of the political spectrum, but at both ends. And some argue that this isn’t a recent phenomenon, but has its roots back several decades.
But this Me First attitude is in stark contrast to the kind of life we are trying to live as Christians, and as a Christian community. It is such a stark contrast, that I have spent some time pondering what it is that sets us apart from the world, and shapes our life as Christians in a fundamentally different way, so much so, that not only are we set apart from the world, sooner or later our values as Christians will set us in conflict with a world where a Me First attitude is king. And that, I think, is the key for us, at least for today: who or what is king over our lives? Who or what rules supreme in our lives? To whom or to what do we owe our ultimate allegiance?
Ascension Day follows the high drama of Holy Week: the palm-waving crowds, the last supper among friends, the betrayals, the scourging, the crucifixion and resurrection. All of those days are full of interpretation and meaning. But Ascension Day is rather vacuous of meaning. Jesus says to his followers,“Stay here. Wait. Wait until you have been clothed with power.”Why the wait? I think God is waiting for us, for you and for me, to say Yes with our own lives: our readiness or at least our willingness to co-operate with God for what God has in mind for our own lives.Dag Hammarskjöld, the great Secretary General of the United Nations, wrote in his diary just before Pentecost in 1961: “…at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.”1 Say Yes to your own life. God is waiting for us to say Yes to our own lives, which will open up this channel of God’s power at work within us and through us.
The story is told from India about a woman who came with her young son to have a conversation with Mahatma Gandhi. This mother was concerned about her son’s attraction to sweets: he ate them all the time and they were rotting his teeth and ruining his health, she said. Would Gandhi speak with her son, she asked? Gandhi paused to consider the request, and then said, yes, he would… in four days’ time. The days passed and again the mother appeared at Gandhi’s home, this time with her nine-year old son. Gandhi asked the mother if he could speak with the boy alone. He invited the boy to sit down with him on the floor of his porch.