Growing up as I did in the 1960’s, my world view was pretty consistent. What I saw on TV, as I sat cross-legged in the Davin School gym as each Apollo mission took off into outer space, or splashed down after a successful mission was the same as I saw each Sunday, gazing up at the stained glass window over the altar at St. Mary’s Church. There was Jesus, blasting off into heaven, vapour trails around his ankles and awestruck or bewildered disciples kneeling, watching in amazement as this first century space mission took off into orbit. It all made perfect sense to me at the time, and I must confess, that is the image of the Ascension that first comes to mind as I ponder the mystery of the feast each year.
But we need to remind ourselves, the Ascension is not rocket science. Jesus is not some first century astronaut. We’re not looking at a space mission or vapour trails. The disciples are not the earth bound mission control team of NASSA. The Ascension is much more than that, because the Ascension as we see it in stained glass is not about some exploration of limitless space, but the reality of the limits of language.
What the disciples experienced that day, was so profound, that language and art have failed over time to convey the depths of the reality. When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. Even Paul struggles with how to convey the mystery of the Ascension when he says simply God raised [Jesus] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.
What’s next? Much anxiety stems from what we don’t know. Fearing uncertainty, we often grasp what we know and have. Nicodemus, a religious leader, came to Jesus sounding confident. “We know who you are.” We know what is possible and impossible. By what you’re doing, “you must be a teacher from God.” Jesus replied, “No one can see the kingdom without being born from above.” How is that possible? Nicodemus asked. “Can one enter the womb again?” Jesus said, “One must be born of water and spirit.” How is that possible? Nicodemus came thinking he knew what’s possible and what’s true. Nicodemus came at night, a sign that he’s in the dark, that he cannot see, and does not know.
We, too, are often in the dark, trapped, thinking we can see. We get trapped by the certainty that someone will act a particular way. We assume from experience and claim our knowledge. Perhaps you’re like me finding yourself grasping with assumptions, holding so tight that you cannot hear another possibility about that person, or about yourself, or about God. Out of anxiety we construct containers of limiting expectations. We grasp at knowing Jesus and like Thomas we want to see. We want evidence and think we know what we must have.
Jesus selected a small group of disciples to particularly teach and transform, a very unusual assortment including uneducated fishermen. Choosing a tax collector is striking. Working for the occupying Roman Empire, he was considered a traitor, outcast by the Jewish community. Other disciples would have resisted or been uncomfortable by Jesus’ latest invitation.
Walking along after teaching and healing, likely amid a crowd asking questions, Jesus saw Levi. Jesus paid attention to the periphery and saw those rejected or overlooked. Looking widely, Jesus saw Levi, saw a human with dignity and worth and honored him with a call. Seen and invited, Levi experienced Jesus’ healing mercy.
“Why eat with tax collectors and sinners?” say self-confident and serious religious folk. Condemn traitors. Build barriers. Stick together. Keep clean.
Because the sick need a doctor. “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
Jesus comes as Great Physician to those who accept they are sick, who are in need.
Sometimes Jesus healed immediately by touch. Jesus also healed and formed over a long time, teaching and living especially with that small group of disciples. Like a doctor, Jesus offers ways to engage healing, including slowly in community. Here are three: look, honor, and receive.
Look widely. Pay attention not only to those close to you. Look to the periphery, see and welcome the outcast and stranger.
Honor mystery. We Brothers say in our Rule of Life: “… honor the mystery present in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, strangers and enemies. Only God knows them as they truly are and in silence we learn to let go of the curiosity, presumption and condemnation which pretends to penetrate the mystery of their hearts.”[i]
Receive wisdom. What do others have to teach you, especially companions you didn’t or wouldn’t choose?
Jesus comes offering healing, including through ways to give and receive together. Look widely. Honor mystery. Receive wisdom.
Commemoration of Edmund James Peck
The portion of Psalm 107 appointed for today – about “going down to the sea in ships… plying trade in deep water… the stormy winds… and then beholding the works of the Lord” – this psalm reads like a biography of Edmund James Peck, whom we commemorate today. Born in the tenements of Manchester, England, in 1850, he entered the Royal Navy while he was still a child, intending to make the Navy his life career. But then a series of near-fatal illnesses and shipboard accidents amazingly led him to experience what he called “the movements of grace,” an experience of Christ “saving him,” quite literally. He became convinced he was to volunteer as a missionary to the Canadian Arctic. And he set off. He would spend most of the next 40 years among the Inuit and Cree people on an immense island in the Arctic – Baffin Island – an area of almost 200,000 square miles. There are two seasons on the Baffin Island: winter and August, when the summertime temperatures sometimes even reach 40 degrees.
It is easy to get lost these days, and in many ways all of us are lost. We are lost in fear, worry, concern, and anxiety. We are lost in sorry, sadness, and anger. We are afraid of the future and worried about the present. We are concerned about those we love, and anxious about ourselves.
All of these are normal and natural feelings, and I do not for a minute want to suggest that there is something wrong with you because you feel one or other, or all, or more of these things. Finding ourselves still in the midst of a pandemic after more than two years, watching the news from Buffalo, and Uvalde, and seeing our leaders incapable of doing anything that looks remotely like gun reform legislation is enough to make anyone’s stomach clench in knots in grief, pain, anger, and sadness. Seeing the images from Ukraine or the effects of the climate emergency overwhelm us with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
All of us no doubt, are actually sadder, angrier, and feel more helpless than we often care to admit. I know I do. That is the reality of life at the moment and the disorientation of this season is profound.
How does Jesus show us the nature of God? One resounding answer is: as Light. Reflected light, shimmering into the world we see and know, igniting into conscious awareness. The primordial light shining in the darkness of John’s Prologue; the light that replaces that of sun and moon in the eternal city of the Revelation to John; the light of Christ we kindle at Easter; the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.”
Philip says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Philip is done with all the poetry; all the elusive and allusive imagery John’s Jesus has woven to evoke, to awaken, to captivate, to bestow the relational knowing of God found in and through himself. Philip wants a clear shaft of light outlining a straightforward vision. Before Jesus leaves them, Philipp wants just a single flash of definitive truth.
But this is not the way John’s Jesus reveals God. Instead, the words and the works of this Jesus are like the sides and angles of a prism. The clarity of a prism enables a beam of invisible, light to pass through. But it also refracts that light into something new: the visible color spectrum. “No one has ever seen God,” we read again in John’s Prologue. “It is God the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, who has made God known.” Jesus refracts the Father’s invisible light, scattering constellated colors that draw our eyes toward their source. It is the interplay of the pattern that beckons us – through dots we can connect, the words and works of Jesus that reveal the truth in the measure we can receive it. Receiving the light is the long slow work of conversion, not epiphany.
This icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so endearing. On her breast the medallion of the infant Christ. Mary’s arms extended in the orans position, the posture of a priest at the altar. Here Mary pre-figuring how she is carrying and offering the body and blood of Christ who comes from within her.
Mary carries Jesus, who is hidden. God’s taking on our human form, hidden for nine months in his mother’s womb. It will happen again to each of us: Christ’s hiddenness. How Christ who comes to live within us is sometimes so hidden, sometimes working out in the secrecy of our own hearts what cannot be seen. Not yet. Not by us; not by others.
This image of Christ, whom the Gospel of John calls “the Word.” Such a paradox, because the Word pictured in this icon cannot speak even one human word. The Word of God, alive and present in a completely silent way.
And then Mary, whose eyes are not on Jesus. Her eyes are on the world, which she sees and shares with Jesus from her heart. Since the meaning of Christ’s coming is to save the world, the Church’s primary mission must be worldly: the church, not radiating its holiness to a godless world, but giving itself to a world God so loves: people, skies, waterways, plants and trees, birds and creatures big and small. The Church’s primary mission must be worldly, offering God’s love and care to a world dying to be saved.
“Jesus went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.”[i] Why? Why did Jesus pray through the night? It seems that in the morning Jesus had the clarity whom to call to be his 12 apostles. But why didn’t he just know that without praying? Why so many times in the Gospels do we read of Jesus’ setting off to pray to God whom he called “Father”?
In the Gospels, we read Jesus prays:
- at his baptism[ii];
- when he withdraws from the crowds[iii];
- after healing people[iv];
- when he is transfigured with God’s light while on the mountaintop[v];
- before walking on water[vi];
- after he learns of John the Baptist’s death[vii];
- before he brings his dead friend, Lazarus, back to life[viii];
- for his apostle, Peter, in the early days and at the end[ix].
We are told Jesus prays about food:
- at meals[x];
- before the miraculous feedings of the multitudes[xi];
- before and after his “last supper” when he meets with his disciples[xii];
At the end of Jesus’ life, he prays:
- three times in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion[xiii];
- from the cross his agony and then his surrender[xiv];
- after his resurrection when he breaks bread for his friends at Emmaus[xv].
We often imagine what it must have been like for those disciples to be living with Jesus during those years of ministry together in Galilee. Particularly in the Synoptic Gospels we come to know a Jesus in all his humanity: his kindness, his gentleness, his anger, his sadness, his love. There are times, especially in Jesus’ healing miracles and perhaps above all at the Transfiguration, when the disciples glimpse something of his divinity, but so often Jesus tells them not to tell anyone of this. More often, Jesus is portrayed as a very human, who draws close to us in his humanity.
But when we move to the Gospel of John, we breathe a very different atmosphere. Here, in this gospel, it is as if Jesus can barely conceal his divinity at all. At any moment his glory is likely to ‘flame out like shining from shook foil.’ In our Gospel today, we have such a moment. Jesus comes to his disciples, walking on the water, and they are terrified. On seeing Jesus, the disciples were experiencing what Rudolph Otto in his book ‘The Idea of the Holy’ described as the numinous. The experience of the numinous, he says, underlies all genuine religious experience. Scripture is packed with such experiences, and perhaps the first famous one is in the account of Moses and the burning bush in Exodus 3. The experience of the numinous has three components, which Otto calls ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans.’ First is ‘mysterium’. The numinous experience is wholly other; entirely different to anything we experience in ordinary life, and it evokes a reaction of wonder. So, the disciples in the boat stare in awe and wonder at a man walking on water. Secondly the numinous is ‘tremendum’. It provokes terror, because it presents itself as an overwhelming power and majesty. And the poor disciples were terrified! But thirdly, the numinous is ‘fascinans’. We are attracted and drawn to it, as something merciful and gracious. The disciples longed for this terrifying figure on the water to come closer to them, and into the boat.
Celibate life can prompt some big, existential questions about the nature of human intimacy with God. When I look at the ring on my finger and imagine a similar ring on the (invisible) hand of Christ, I wonder: What does it mean to be invited to share an intimate relationship – the most intimate relationship — with someone who is so utterly mysterious?
All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; and no one knows the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. These words from Matthew find a striking parallel in John’s gospel: No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.