Ascension Day: Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Giotto, The Ascension (c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua)

Hail the day that sees him rise,
glorious to his native skies;
Christ, awhile to mortals giv’n,
enters now the highest heaven.

–– Charles Wesley (18th century)

At once the disciples wept and, groaning deeply,
said to the teacher,
“Are you leaving us, O Compassionate?
Parting from those who love you?”

–– Romanos, Kontakion for the Ascension (6th century)

O envious cloud,
do you grudge even our brief delight?
Where do you fly in such haste?
Your departure, so splendid and bright!
But how poor and blind you leave us!

–– Fray Luis de Leon ((16th century)

 

This is the fortieth day of Easter, Ascension Thursday, commemorating the cessation of resurrection appearances and the exaltation of Christ into a state of divine glory and universal presence. The liturgical texts and hymns are festive and celebratory: the divine fullness, hidden and humbled in the life of a first-century mortal, is lifted high once again, but without discarding the humanity assumed and hallowed in the Incarnation. By ascending, Christ does not abandon us to “earth’s broken Eden,”[i] but rather makes the way for us to follow, deeper and deeper into God. Our humanity, made glorious in Christ, is joined to divinity forever.

O strong Ramme, which hast batter’d heaven for mee,
Mild lambe, which with thy blood, hast mark’d the path;
Bright torch, which shin’st, that I the way may see . . . [ii]

Still, the day has always felt bittersweet to me. Amid all the festive imagery of a glorified Christ taking up his rightful crown as “cherubic legions shout him welcome to the skies,”[iii] and despite the promise that we now have a Mediator who, as one dear priest put it to me long ago, “whispers our prayers into the ear of the Father for all eternity,” a sense of ending and departure is there as well. The companion who once graced his disciples with the intimacy of daily presence, even after his death––where is he now?

Those once blessed,
now sad, afflicted,
those nourished at your breast
and now by you dispossessed,
where will they turn their faces? [iv]

Divine absence is a common theme in our time. In the secular imaginary, where heaven is but empty space, the Ascension is a flight to nowhere. It’s not just a matter of declining interest in the labor of belief as other matters compete for our attention. For many, “God” is simply no longer even thinkable. Divinity seems a term referring to nothing in contemporary experience. The vocabulary and grammar necessary to speak God into being have become, for many, a dead language.

Climbing high into the mountains fifty years ago, on the lookout for divine presence, Czeslaw Milosz saw only absence––“the mighty power of counter-fulfillment; the penalty of a promise lost forever.”

No eagle-creator circled in the air from which the thunderbolt of its glory had been cast out.

Protective spirits hid themselves in subterranean beds of bubbling ore . . .

God the Father didn’t walk about any longer tending the new shoots of a cedar, no longer did man hear his rushing spirit.

His son did not know his sonship and turned his eyes away when passing by a neon cross flat as a movie screen showing a striptease. . .

And those who longed for the Kingdom took refuge like me in the mountains to become the last heirs of a dishonored myth. [v]

The Ascension does not only signify absence, however. It also promises a new form of presence, which I have written about in “Ascension Day ‘Charade’: The Puzzling Exit of Jesus.” But absence is as fundamental to faith as presence, and deserves to be treated by Christian communities with equal respect and attention.

Since most churches, unable to get good attendance at weekday liturgies, now celebrate the joyful glories of the Ascension on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, perhaps we should consider devoting Ascension Thursday to the honest contemplation of its shadow side. What if God’s friends were to gather annually in an “upper room” for an Ascension potluck or pub night to share their stories and their wonderings about the experience and meaning of divine absence?

Might we then, like those first disciples left behind on the Mount of Olives, find the sincerity of our questions and the depth of our longing answered by the winds of heaven and the fire of unquenchable Love?

So now, be joyful and radiant,
be glad, and sing a new song.
For everything that may happen, happens for your sake.
It was for you I came down and went through all . . .
It is for you again that I ascend into heaven,
to prepare the place
where I must be with you. [vi]

 

 

 

 

[i] Denise Levertov, “Ascension,” in Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry, eds. Robert Atwan, George Dardess, Peggy Rosenthal (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 567.

[ii] John Donne, “Ascension,” in John Donne: The Complete English Poems (London: Everyman’s Library, 1985), 433-34.

[iii] Isaac Watts, “Morning,” in The Sacred Harp (Bremen, GA: The Sacred Harp Publishing Company, 1991), #163t.

[iv] Fray Luis de Leon, “The Ascension,” in Divine Inspiration, 566.

[v] Czeslaw Milosz, “How It Was,” in Czeslaw Milosz: New and Collected Poems, 1931-2001 (New York: Ecco, 2003), 232-33.

[vi] Romanos, “Kontakion on the Ascension,” in On the Life of Christ: Kontakia, trans. Archimandrite Ephrem Lash (New York: Harper Collins, 1995).

Magdalene: The Poetic Gospel of Marie Howe

Donatello, Mary Magdalene (late 1430s)

‘I have come to die for your sins,’ Jesus told a stooped figure passing him on the road. ‘Then what am I to die for?’ the old man asked. Jesus took a small notebook from his pocket and copied the question. ‘If I may have your name and address” he said, “an answer will be sent to you.’ 

 –– A. J. Langguth, Jesus Christs

Everyone wanted to pour his wine, to sit near him at the table.
Me too. Until he was dead.
Then he was with me all the time.

–– Marie Howe, “The Teacher”

 

Jesus Christs, A. J. Langguth’s little-known novel published in 1968, imagines Jesus turning up in a wide variety of situations both ancient and modern. In a series of short narratives, he’s a schoolboy, a prisoner, a Vietnamese soldier, a talk-show host, a priest, a prophet, and a host of other characters. Not limited to his biblical incarnation as a first-century Jew, he exists as a recurring phenomenon with an innate awareness, if not always complete understanding, of his unique nature and demanding vocation. Despite being thrown into a new time and place every page or two, the multiple Jesuses retain a semblance of self-recognition within the flux of ceaseless improvisation. But over the course of the novel, the struggles and hopes of all those Jesus Christs begin to seem indistinguishable from our own.

Langguth’s pluralizing of Jesus explores Gerard Manley Hopkins’ premise that “Christ plays in ten thousand places,” wearing many faces, as if the Incarnation were not a singular event but a series of experiments––not only in the range of human possibilities, but in the very feasibliity of translating divinity into the syntax of creaturely dilemmas. Some of these experiments fail in sad or funny ways, but the ongoing repetition of the attempt suggests that there may be something––or Some One––whose desire for human flourishing remains eternally persistent.

Langguth’s quirky novel first appeared when I was a young seminarian immersed in biblical studies, and it had a lasting impact on the way I think about both the representations and the manifestations of the living––that is to say, ever-recurring––Jesus. The One who changes everything keeps coming again and again, and “the holy gospel according to us” not only reframes the way we understand our own stories, but the way we re-read the original biblical texts. Jesus lives, and so does Scripture, and the thing about living things is, they can’t be pinned down or dissected into fixed and final meanings. They keep surprising us with new revelations.

All this came to mind when I discovered, during Easter Week, Marie Howe’s Magdalene, a luminous and moving collection of poems in which two biblical figures, Mary Magdalene and Jesus, assume new identities in the deeply felt narratives and perceptions of a contemporary woman.

When the sixth-century Pope Gregory the Great conflated Mary Magdalene with the anonymous woman taken in adultery and the weeping sinner whose tears bathed the feet of her Lord, Magdalene became a compelling archetype for the forgiven sinner. The haggard penitent carved from a tree trunk by Donatello is famous for its rigorous rejection of idealized beauty. Both vanity and earthly delight have been stripped away. But this was an exception. Most depictions of Magdalene retain a robust sensuality, like the close-up of Joanne Dru’s tear-stained face, gazing up at her Savior in my father’s 1954 Jesus film, Day of Triumph. Her riveting Technicolor image made a lasting impression on my ten-year-old self.

Joanne Dru as Mary Magdalene in Day of Triumph (1954)

Through the long centuries of male-dominated biblical storytelling, the conflated Magdalene figure was typecast as a fallen women tainted by her erotic past. These days she is more accurately understood as an important disciple and primary witness to the Resurrection. But Howe, in voicing the complexity of feminine experience, candidly embraces the Magdalene tradition’s erotic themes while attaching new ones––particularly motherhood––as well. Instead of sticking to the original gospel scripts, she claims the authority of personal experience. “That’s what the story says, but that’s not what he told me,” insists the speaker of these poems.[i]

The collection contains some overtly biblical moments, such as “Magdalene on Gethsemane,” where “what he imagined was not his own torture, not his own death,” but the abuse and torture of “the others”––history’s countless victims. In “Calvary,” the shock of the Crucifixion is felt keenly in its defamiliarizing depiction as a distant, unnoticed thing:

Someone shaking out a rug from an open window
might have heard hammering, one or two blocks away
and thought little or nothing of it.

When the modern Magdalene puts her little girl to bed in “Christmas Eve,” she notices the baby Jesus is missing from the crèche they had set up in her room.

Later when I went to check on her, I saw she’d built a labyrinth of blocks,
a very high tower in the middle of the labyrinth. . .
and at the foot of the tower, the clay baby Jesus and a lamb.

Where was Mary, and Joseph?
Here, she pointed out from her bed––wandering through the seemingly
endless corridors of the labyrinth––looking for their lost child.

“Christmas Eve” could be a metonymy for the book’s overall interplay of the biblical and the contemporary, with the witty difference here of using the clay figures of a Christmas crèche instead of “real” characters. Even more representative of the whole is the poem’s image of endless search––not only for an absent Jesus, but for the inner truth of the seeker herself.

Explaining her attraction to biblical figures, Howe has said, “I grew up with these characters. They are us––flawed, faithful, frightened.”[ii] But in most of these poems, her Magdalene disappears into the everyday sorrows and joys of the poet, so that both Mary Magdalene and her modern counterpart become Everywoman, representing the many through the particularity of the singular and personal. Mary/Marie, like the Jesus in Langguth’s novel, becomes the “I” who contains multitudes:

Remember the woman in the blue burka forced to kneel in the stadium
then shot in the head? That was me.
And I was the woman who secretly filmed it.[iii]

Such unbearable imagery is countered by the vivid register of small delights, like resting her chin on her lover’s shoulder as their bodies entwine in the shallows of a summer sea, or binge-watching an Edith Wharton adaptation with her adopted daughter:

both of us, wrapped in blankets shouting No no no no
when the last most vibrant girl agreed to marry the rich sop.[iv]

Mary Magdalene, St. Luke tells us, was afflicted by seven devils, and the voice in these poems knows them well. “The first was that I was very busy.” The list grows; the demons become darker, more difficult. Halfway through the lengthy poem she admits that the first devil actually was that “I could never get to the end of the list.”[v]

In “Magdalene: The Addict,” her torment is naked and unashamed:

I liked Hell,
I liked to go there alone
relieved to lie in the wreckage, ruined, physically undone.
The worst had happened. What could hurt me then?
I thought it was the worst, thought nothing worse could come.
Then nothing did, and no one.

And yet, to the biblical Magdalene, something––someone––did come. And to the poet as well, although her “Teacher” remains shadowy and elusive. Like the Christ who warned Magdalene, Noli me tangere (“Touch me not!”), her redemptive guide cannot be grasped. “Was he my husband, my lover, my teacher? / One book will say one thing. Another book another.”[vi]

The turning point for the Mary/Marie persona is anticipated in a confessional lament, “What I Did Wrong.” After a painfully honest catalogue of personal failings, she shows a snapshot of her tormented soul: “Years holding on to a rope / that wasn’t there, always sorry . . .” But then, the crucial question:

Who would
follow that young woman down the narrow hallway?
Who would call her name until she turns?

Who indeed? We all know that hallway. We all long for that loving voice. The weeping Magdalene heard it by the garden tomb. “Mary,” he said. When she turned to respond, she rose from the dead.

Whoever he was––and is––the Teacher knows your hunger, your desire, but the finding you seek always means a losing as well. Desire is the prelude to surrender:

So, I thought I had to become more than I was, more than I’d been,
but that wasn’t it. It seemed rather that
something had to go. Something had to be let go of.[vii]

No cheap grace here; instead, the “hard and bitter agony. . . like death” endured by T. S. Eliot’s Magi in their own search for the Holy One. As Magdalene sums up the message in another poem:

How many times did he say it
Change doesn’t hurt he’d say,
as much as resistance to change [viii]

Howe’s haunting suite of poems, like Mark’s gospel, ends inconclusively. “What use / has it been? Somebody loved me / Somebody left. . .” And yet, “Whatever flooded into the world when / He died” relieves the wounding absence with traces of an impossible presence. This redemptive hope is perfectly expressed in “Magdalene at the Grave,” whose clear echo of the Easter appearance stories blesses us with a strange and consoling grace.

On a late summer afternoon, the poet is driving to a cemetery to mourn a departed loved one. Whether she’s Mary remembering Jesus or Marie mourning an unnamed contemporary doesn’t matter. All mortal stories converge at the remembering place. When a heavy rain starts to fall, she decides to turn the car around and head for home. But once she reaches her driveway, she feels a strong compulsion (“as if something were pulling me”) to go back and complete her pilgrimage to the grave of her beloved.

Ridiculous as it was to park and kneel where he’d been buried
––to kneel in the rain––I laughed out loud!

After a few minutes, I looked up and saw the other car idling,
the driver’s window rolled down.

It’s a moment radiant with resurrection mystery. The sudden appearance of the other car. The window rolled down, but is someone there or not? No running over for a closer look. No touch. Only this final, utterly persuasive testimony:

The tears I wept were not tears of grief.
How many times must it happen before I believe?

 

Giotto, Noli me tangere (Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, 1304-6)

 

[i] Marie Howe, “Magdalene on Gethsemane,” in Magdalene: Poems (New York / London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017), 46. All of Howe’s cited poems are from this volume.

[ii] Interview in EDS Now (Spring 2013), p. 5. Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) in Cambridge, MA, was my seminary.

[iii] “Magdalene Afterwards,” in Howe, 48.

[iv] “Adaptation,” in Howe, 79-80.

[v] “Magdalene––The Seven Devils,” in Howe, 16, 18.

[vi] “The Teacher,” in Howe, 69.

[vii] “The Teacher,” in Howe, 42-43.

[viii] One of 7 untitled interludes in Howe, 54.

I Must Decrease (And Why That’s Good News)

Seattle Midsummer twilight (10:05 p.m., June 22, 2017)

The 24th of June is, in the Christian calendar, the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist. In Europe, it’s also known as Midsummer Day, marking the critical moment when the longest days begin the six-month journey toward the longest nights. Even though we still have months before us of warm weather and brilliant sunshine, the light is now (imperceptibly at first) beginning to slip away minute by minute. Thus in the old days, on the night before Midsummer––called Midsummer Eve or Midsummer Night––bonfires were lit to encourage the waning sun, and people were on their guard against any supernatural mischief. As we know from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s a good night just to stay home. Whatever you do, don’t go into that magic forest!

The ancient traditions may seem obsolete, but are we free of the anxiety they represent? This turning point in the sun’s journey is a metaphor for our own mortality. We are temporal beings––creatures of time. For us, nothing lasts forever. The very moment that we reach the peak of the Summer Solstice, savoring what the poet Wallace Stevens called “arrested peace, / Joy of such permanence, right ignorance / Of change…”, the sense of having all the time in the world starts to seep away––imperceptibly at first, as we enjoy our fun in the sun and the long unhurried twilights. As Stevens goes on to say in his great Solstice poem, “Credences of Summer”: “This is the barrenness / Of the fertile thing that can attain no more.” After the perfect moment, then what?

In a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, Calvin is running around in a frenzy, shouting, “It’s July already! Oh no! Oh no! What happened to June? Summer vacation is slipping through our fingers like grains of sand! It’s going too fast! We’ve got to hoard our freedom and have more fun! Time rushes on! Help! Help!”

Meanwhile, his friend Hobbes the tiger is watching Calvin’s panic with studious detachment. Then he says to himself, “I don’t think I want to be here at the end of August.”

My Minnesota relatives still have the summer house my grandfather built on a bluff above Lake Pepin, a scenic stretch of the Mississippi River that becomes a lake two miles wide and thirty miles long. About fifteen years ago, in late June, I walked down to the beach from the house, passing through a grove of maple trees and birdsong. When I emerged from the woods onto the sandy lakeshore, I saw one of the great spectacles of Midwest summer: a storm of mayflies.

Thick black clouds of insects with transparent wings whirled in the air above me. Millions more covered the willows and cottonwoods, darkening the summer greenery with their densely packed masses. It was an explosion of pure fecundity: “The feast and fairy dance of life,” as one naturalist has described it.

But this dance is oh so brief. After incubating for two long years in the mud of the lake bottom, the mayflies grow wings, float up to the surface and rise into the air to mate. Within 24 hours of this eruption into ecstasy, they fall lifeless back to earth. Roads and bridges covered with their greasy remains are too slick for driving, and must be closed until a cleanup crew arrives.

Is this not a sped-up version of the human condition––here today, gone tomorrow? As they sang in medieval England, “Merry it is while summer lasts; but now draws near the wind’s cold blast.” The Bible was equally frank about our radically transient status: “All flesh is grass . . . The grass withers, the flower fades.”

Contemporary poet Mary Oliver delivers the same message, lightened by a dose of whimsey:

For years and years I struggled
just to love my life. And then

the butterfly
rose, weightless, in the wind.
“Don’t love your life
too much,” it said,

and vanished
into the world.[i]

For me, this mortal life is like the fireworks on the Fourth of July. So glorious and wondrous––and so quickly over. Every year my wife and I walk a mile down to the local harbor to watch the display, and when it’s done, as we make our way home in the darkness, I always feel the melancholy of endings. The pyrotechnics of July 4––the American version of Midsummer Night––have come and gone. Only two weeks old, summer is already beginning to slip through our fingers! This is the barrenness of the fertile thing that can attain no more.

John the Baptist knew how the story goes. He knew that his given moment on the stage was coming to an end. Remember what he said about Jesus? He must increase, I must decrease. My time is passing, but Jesus’ time is coming. Thus at the Nativity of John the Baptist the days start to decrease, while at the Nativity of Jesus the days start to increase.

John the Baptist is rightly remembered as the voice in the wilderness, announcing that the Lord is come (let every heart prepare him room!) As his father Zechariah foretold when John was only eight days old, the Baptist was born to be “the prophet of the Most High…. to give knowledge of salvation to [God’s] people by the forgiveness of their sins.” In paintings, John is often seen pointing away from himself, toward Jesus, the “dawn from on high” who gives “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

Leonardo da Vinci, John the Baptist (1513-16)

John gave us expectant hearts. But he offered us another great gift as well. He taught us the art of letting go. Jesus must increase, I must decrease. That’s what he said, and what he did. It’s what we all do. As the old shape note hymn says with such brutal honesy, “Passing away, we are passing away.”

All flesh is grass––a melancholy thought at the dawn of summer. But wait; there’s more, and it’s good news. Though the grass withers and the flower fades, Isaiah tells us, the word of God will stand forever (Isaiah 40:8). And what is this “word?” Jesus is the word, the speaking of divine reality in human be-ing. And that divine reality, which we are made to mirror, is all about self-diffusive, self-forgetting love. God is a Trinity of persons, giving themselves over to one another in an eternal circulation of gifts offered and gifts received.

So the great secret at the heart of existence, the word that stands forever, is that it’s all about letting go instead of holding on. Jesus made that perfectly clear in his death and resurrection. And John the Baptist, who was martyred before he could see that first Easter Day, intuited this truth even before it was fully revealed.

He must increase, I must decrease. Less of me, more of Christ. More of God. And the Christian life is all about making that truth our daily practice, as individuals and as communities of faith. We learn to let go of things which are passing away––and of the stories which are no longer true for us––and to remain open and grateful for the new gifts we are about to receive. Welcome every gift, but hold on to nothing but God, who is not only the Giver of every gift, but is also the only gift worth having.

God is not a thing, an object, a commodity to be possessed. God is a dance we do. We become most truly ourselves only to the degree by which we participate in, and surrender to, the choreography of that dance: the eternal giving and receiving of self-diffusive love. Letting go, not holding on, is what completes us.

As Mary Oliver reminds us,

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.[ii]

 

 

Related post:

Sacraments of Summer

 

[i] Mary Oliver, “One or Two Things,” New and Collected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 122.

[ii] ibid., 178

Ascension Day “Charade”? – The Puzzling Exit of Jesus

Ascension Day at the Episcopal Theological School, May 4, 1967 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

I first fell in love with Ascension Day in the seventh grade, when my Episcopal school in Los Angeles kept the day holy by giving us the afternoon off. When solemn high mass ended at noon, 350 boys raced out of chapel to make the most of a sunny spring day. I may not have had a keen grasp of the Ascension’s theological significance, but if it meant a half-day vacation, I was all for it. So how did I spend that free time? I went to see the Crucifixion.

My father, James K. Friedrich, priest and film producer, was shooting the last episode of a 6-hour miniseries on the life of Christ. I met my friend Ricky McGarry, whose Catholic school also observed a half-day, and we took a bus to Hollywood’s Goldwyn Studio to visit the set. The irony of going to “Golgotha” on Ascension Day escaped me at the time. Although it could be said that the Fourth Gospel sees as much glorification on Mt. Calvary as Luke sees on the Mount of Olives, this was not an argument a seventh-grader was prepared to make.

The Rev. James K. Friedrich on the set of “Crucifixion and Resurrection” (1956)

My most memorable––and notorious––Ascension Day came a decade later, reported under the title “Ascension Day Charade “ in The Christian Century magazine.

On Ascension Day, May 4, approximately 40 men and a few women and children gathered at a conspicuous place at noon and conducted a premeditated, burlesque celebration of the day of Christ’s “Glorification.” To one end of a long cord they had fastened several gas-filled balloons; to the other, a crude effigy of the Christ made of tissue paper and cardboard. As high noon approached, the crowd began a hilarious countdown beginning at 100. The volume of the shouting and the air of boisterous jollity heightened until with a mighty shout of “Zero” and “Blast-off” from the crowd the cord holding the balloons and the effigy was released. A naïve bystander did not realize what the raucous crowd was mocking until, as the balloons ascended dragging behind them the paper Christ, he heard one of the men quote Scripture: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Who were these people? Were they Russian atheists or members of the Chinese Red Guard taunting Christians with their gibes? Were they “hippies” taking a trip on LSD or Black Muslims reviling Christianity? Where did this parody of the Ascension occur? It occurred on the campus of a highly respected seminary, and the men who contrived and conducted it were seminarians, studying for the office of pastor, prophet and priest in the high calling of Jesus Christ.

The unsigned editorial went on to shake its finger at such “profanations,” expressing “revulsion and pity,” and “a heavy sense of abiding sadness” over the “absurd and despicable” actions of those naughty seminarians.

On the day designated by the church and by generations of Christian people as a reminder of the exaltation of Christ, these people debased the Christ… What will they try next for thrills? The Black Mass?[i]

But another mainline publication, the Methodist Christian Advocate, jumped into the fray on the students’ behalf. It couldn’t resist needling the low church Century for fussing over a liturgical calendar item to which their liberal mainline constituency in fact paid scant attention. And it worried that the establishment’s “disturbing defensiveness about surface material” may signal that its symbols are already on the decline. In contrast, said the Advocate,

the seminarians who are able to deal so lightly with symbols of a previous day… are indicating a certain freedom toward their faith. Be reminded that they are seminary students, who presumably have some desire to serve their world through their church. Their lightness toward tradition may well reflect a desire to shake loose from dead forms in order to better serve the God who has called them.[ii]

Dear reader, it may not surprise you to learn that this controversial liturgical observance was cooked up in my seminary dorm room. A youthful Religious Imagineer, joined by two other first-year students at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was seeking a dramatic finish to a series of spontaneous “art actions” during a four-day gathering of major church leaders. The conference agenda was certainly serious and daunting––the reunification of ten American denominations. But the addition of news media and right-wing Christian protestors to the mix was too tempting to resist. It seemed a good time for some religious guerilla theater.

Our helium-powered ascension was not mockery but play, with precedents going back to the medieval practice of tying a rope to an effigy of Christ and pulling it up through a hole in the church ceiling on the Feast of the Ascension. But in the late twentieth century, the explicitness of a material ‘figure’ rising into an empty sky prompted some discomfort among the Christian modernists in the crowd. How much were they being asked to believe about the Ascension? What was really at stake in our ‘Ascension Day Charade?’

The four gospels describe the earthly life of Jesus, his death, and various appearances to his followers after the resurrection. But only Luke describes the moment the appearances ended. Matthew provides a farewell scene on a mountain, but we never see Jesus actually leave. Instead, he promises to be with us always, to the end of time. Mark concludes his account with three women being told by a mysterious figure that the risen Christ is “not here.” But if they go back to Galilee, they will see him there. It’s like the teaser in a season finale: To be continued. John, who devotes several chapters to a long and moving farewell speech at the Last Supper, ends his gospel with a another conversation over food––a picnic breakfast at the beach––but now the talk seems less urgent, as though Jesus and his friends have all the time in the world together.

Only Luke delivers the emotional image of seeing the Incarnate One go for good, like Shane riding off into the sunset. As I wrote in my 2014 post on the Ascension, “Where Did Jesus Go?”:

Luke might have had Jesus disappear around a corner, or over a hill.
Or the disciples might have looked away for a moment, or blinked,
missing the exact moment of vanishing.
But the cloud is a nice touch. Artists have always loved it.
In any event, Jesus is suddenly gone.

Christians ever since have been left with a number of questions? Where did he go? Is he still locatable in space and time, or is he only in a transcendent, placeless realm? What form did he take in order to be in a ‘place’ beyond embodied existence? What does it mean to say Christ is still present and in relationship with us? Does the Ascension tell us anything about our own future?

If Jesus exchanged the spatially locatable body of a first century Jew for the omnipresence we attribute to the divine, can we still say he is fully human, or did the Word “unbecome” flesh in the Ascension? Did it somehow reverse or cancel the Incarnation?

Martin Luther, insisting that the ascended Christ was not “a stork in a nest in a treetop,”[iii] argued for his ubiquitious presence in the here and now, but that still leaves the particularity of Jesus in question. As one contemporaray theologian has framed the dilemma, “Christ everywhere really means Jesus of Nazareth nowhere.”[iv]

One ancient solution was to understand the Church as the continuation in space-time of Christ’s incarnate presence. Jesus’ individual body was succeeded by the community of the faithful, the visible ‘Body of Christ’ in the world. As Ephesians says, “The Church is Christ’s body, the completion of him who himself completes all things everywhere” (Eph.1:23). But where is the church which has truly fulfilled this high calling, except in momentary flashes of grace? We may be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, but we are still not all that good at it, despite centuries of practice. The perfection of Christ is not contained within the ecclesia, though we may hope to meet it there.

It was easier to take Luke’s ascension imagery seriously when the cosmos was vertically arranged into earth below, heaven above. The heavenly realm might be invisible, yet it could seem nonetheless near enough to shed its influence on the world below. Indeed, many paintings of the Ascension show heaven to be, as the Celts say, only about a foot and a half above our heads.

Pietro Perugino, The Ascension of Christ (1495-98)

Recent centuries have abandoned such a dualistic cosmos. Heaven as a separate place in the old sense has receded into infinity––and beyond!––distant and remote, unengaged with the mechanisms, causalities and presences of this world. But a God who has nowhere to ‘be’ in space-time is a God without ‘existence.’ In modernity’s cosmology, it isn’t just Jesus who has ascended out of sight, but the entire Godhead. The question became not just ‘where is Jesus?’ but ‘where is God?’

Theologians have puzzled over the seeming ‘unthinkability’ or absence of God within the social imaginary of modernity. I won’t go too far into the weeds to catalog the rich variety of their responses here, but they include thinking of God not as a noun (an object among others) but as a verb (known through actions, situations or relations), or expanding the notion of transcendence to mean not only ‘beyond’ but ‘within’––the hidden inner source of every possibility which Gerard Manley Hopkins called ‘the dearest freshness deep down things.’ But whatever the approach to the mystery of divine presence and absence, language fumbles when it reaches beyond the senses. In the matter of the divine who, what, where, when and how, words fail.

The true God is the unknown mystery of the world whose holiness is violated as soon as God acquires a name. God is beyond being and nonbeing, belief and unbelief, theism and atheism. God is hidden, holy, mysterious, the ineffable source of revelation and grace.[v]

The Ascension epitomizes the dilemma of locating and describing ‘the unknown mystery of the world.’ We may catch a glimpse the disappearing feet, but if Jesus has indeed returned to God, where exactly is that? And how do we ourselves get there?

The Ascension of Christ, Limoges (Late 16th century)

A nineteenth-century Danish theologian proposed a temporal approach to the question of ‘where.’ Instead of looking for the ascended Christ in space, might we discern him within the unfolding of time, replenishing and perfecting the world ‘with the energies of the future’?

The presence of Christ in the universe must be looked upon, not so much as actual being, but rather as an essential becoming; it must be treated as a progressive advent, a continual coming, in virtue of which, by the growing development of his fullness, he makes himself the center of the whole creation; and the creation itself is thus being prepared and created anew as a living, organic, and growing temple of Christ.[vi]

To contemplate the mystery of the ascended Christ as a process, shaping the interrelated destiny of everything that is, may prove a way to collapse the infinite distance between earth and heaven into a nearness, a presence, which can be known and experienced even if not understood. Wherever Christ went, it was to prepare a ‘place’––or situation––where we all may become our truest selves, completed at last in Christ’s glorified and expanded body. Like Dante at the end of Purgatorio, through the mystery of ascent we become ‘rifatto … puro e disposto a salire a le stelle’ (‘remade . . . pure and ready for the stars’).[vii]

So the ultimate question for Ascension Day may not be ‘where is Jesus?’, but ‘where are we?’ And where do we need to go from here to be with Christ and in Christ? An old shape note hymn says it perfectly:

Then he arose, ascended high
To show our feet the way…

 

 

 

 

Related post: Where Did Jesus Go?

 

[i] “Ascension Day Charade” (unsigned editorial), The Christian Century, vol. LXXXIV, No. 21 (May 24, 1967), 675-76.

[ii] “Jesus in the Clouds,” Christian Advocate, vol. XI, No. 12 (June 15, 1967)

[iii] Douglas Farrow, Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology (Edinburgh, Grand Rapids: T & T Clark, 1999), 269.

[iv] Ibid., 12.

[v] Gary Dorrien, The Word as True Myth: Interpreting Modern Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 238

[vi] Hans Martensen, in Farrow, 192.

[vii] Purgatorio xxxiii.141-143.

End photo by Marilyn Robertson.

The Temptation: A Gospel Play for Lent’s First Sunday

Duccio di Buoninsegna, The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, Maesta Altarpiece (c. 1307)

Duccio di Buoninsegna, The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, Maesta Altarpiece (c. 1307)

There are many ways to tell and experience our sacred stories. Sometimes those ancient texts cry out for the theatrical midrash of dramatized performance. This liturgical play was first performed as the gospel “reading” on the First Sunday of Lent, 1997, in front of the altar at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church on Whidbey Island, Washington.

The allusions to other biblical stories (Exodus, Peter’s rebuke, Gethsemane) in this account reflects the gospel’s own intertextuality: framing Jesus’ wilderness story as a redo of his ancestors’ flawed pilgrimage. This time around, Jesus would get it right, trusting God where his desert predecessors had doubted and rebelled.

Everyone in the congregation was given two stones to strike together as “Satan’s Theme” before each temptation. The choir functioned as the offstage chorus.

 

Fade in environmental AUDIO of desert sounds. JESUS enters, attentive to what is around him in this desert place. At center stage, facing out, he takes a deep breath and assumes a posture of prayer. .

CHORUS (offstage)

You are my beloved child. This day have I begotten you.

The people click stones together as SATAN enters to stand near Jesus.
Satan signals for silence.

SATAN (pointing to a cairn of stones):

If you really are God’s beloved child, command these stones to turn into bread.

Jesus contemplates the stones as a CRUCIFER enters, bearing a cross made out of two crossed sticks. An apple is suspended from each end of the crossarm. ADAM and EVE enter. They approach the fruit curiously but hesitate to pluck it.

SATAN

Go ahead. Eat. It won’t kill you. Just one bite, and you’ll be like God.
You’ll know everything.

They each take an apple and bite into it. The taste is bitter. They look at their apples in disgust, then drop them and look around anxiously, as if suddenly aware of being in a more dangerous world. They back away from the “tree,” then turn and run away. The crucifer exits and THREE ISRAELITES enter.

FIRST ISRAELITE

After God rescued us from slavery in Egypt, we wandered for so many years in the wilderness. The desert was hard and bitter, and despite everything God had done for us, we began to complain.

SECOND ISRAELITE

It was crazy to come out here. No food, no water, nothing but stones and thorns.
What were we thinking?

THIRD ISRAELITE

Milk and honey, man. Freedom. The Promised Land . . .  What a joke.
We should have stayed in Egypt. I can’t stop thinking about those fleshpots.

CHORUS (as Israelites exit)

They tested God in their hearts, demanding food for their craving.
They railed against God and said,
“Can God make a feast even in this wilderness?
“Yes, God struck rock and water gushed out,
but can God provide bread and meat to feed us?”
Hearing this, God’s anger was kindled,
for the people had no faith;
they did not trust God’s power to save.  [Psalm 78:18-22]

SATAN

If you are the Christ, no use pretending to be like everybody else.
Don’t be too proud to use your power. People expect it. They need it.
They don’t want a savior who’s weak like them, believe me.
Come on! Let’s see what you’re made of. Turn these stones into bread.

JESUS

Bread is a gift from God — and the work of many hands.
A person who needs nothing from anyone––ends up all alone.
I accept the lesson that hunger teaches.

SATAN

Well, if you’re going to save the world, you’ve got to keep your strength up.

JESUS

As long as anyone is hungry, I will be hungry.

SATAN (offering Jesus a stone)

Take. Eat.

JESUS (taking the stone)

 Human beings do not live by bread alone…
 (He puts the stone on the altar)
.… but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

The people click stones together. Satan produces a ladder, and gets Jesus to climb it.
Satan then signals for silence.

SATAN

If you are the Christ, throw yourself down from this pinnacle of the Temple.
For it is written, “God will command the angels to protect you;
they will bear you up in their arms, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”

JESUS

I will live without protection.
Where I’m going, angels can’t help.

PETER enters from the back of the congregation, making his way quickly to the ladder.

PETER

Let me through! Let me through!…
(reaching the foot of the ladder)
Rabbi! No! God forbid anything should happen to you.
You’ve got to get out of here. Go somewhere safe.

JESUS (looking down at Peter)

Get behind me, Satan! You’re blocking my way!
You don’t see the way God sees.

Peter continues to look up at Jesus for a few moments, then he drops his head and exits slowly, disconsolate, as Satan addresses Jesus.

SATAN

You know you’re headed for a fall, Jesus.
Aren’t you curious whether God’s going to catch you?
Come on! A little test flight — just to make sure. Jump…

Jesus lets go of the ladder, spreading arms wide as if about to fly — or be crucified.

CONGREGATION (led by Satan)

Jump!…Jump!…Jump!…. (continuing ad lib)

Jesus, as if awakened from a trance, drops his arms suddenly to clutch the ladder before he falls into space. The people stop shouting. Jesus descends carefully to the ground, and stands face to face with Satan.

JESUS

The Scriptures say, “Do not test God. Trust God.”

Jesus turns away from Satan to pray. The people click stones until Satan signals for silence. The ISRAELITES enter, all looking at their smartphones.

 FIRST ISRAELITE

Now when Moses did not come down from the mountain of God, the Israelites began to feel abandoned. So they melted down all their gold, and made themselves a new god, a god who would never leave them, a god who would always take care of them.

 SATAN

Come on, Jesus. I’m not your enemy. I know what people want. I know what you want.
I can give you anything you desire. Look.

Satan directs Jesus’ attention to a large screen displaying a montage of television commercials promising endless happiness and pleasure. The Israelites kneel before the images. Jesus glances at the screen, then turns his back to it. When the montage concludes, the Israelites stand up, pull out smartphones and exit, transfixed by their devices.  

SATAN

Jesus, how long are you going to stick with that two-bit operation of your father’s? Long hours, low pay, miserable working conditions, declining market share, insufficient capital. Am I right or am I right? It’s a dead end, pal. That’s not for you. You’re good, and you know it. You come and work for me, and I’ll guarantee you maximum exposure – worldwide markets, talk show, website, golden parachute… You can write your own ticket. Think of the good you could do with that kind of power. It’ll be fantastic, believe me.

Satan opens a bottle of champagne, fills a flute and offers it to Jesus.

Just say yes, and we’ll drink to your success.

An ANGEL enters holding a communion chalice. Jesus looks at the two different drinks before him, then turns to Satan and pushes aside his extended arm holding the flute.

JESUS

No. I serve God––and no one else!”

SATAN

Satan looks at Jesus a moment, then shrugs and drinks the champagne himself.

 We’ll meet again.

He exits. Jesus approaches the angel.

JESUS

Abba, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by.
Yet not my will, but yours be done.

The angel offers the chalice. Jesus accepts it, drinks deeply, then places it on the altar, kneeling before it. Then the angel gently brings Jesus to his feet and, with a comforting arm around his shoulders, leads him out. Desert sounds slowly fade out.

 

 

Related Posts

Via Negativa: A Lenten Worship Installation

The Desert and the Flood

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kieslowski’s Decalogue: A Masterpiece of Religious Cinema

 

Pawel (Wojciech Klata), Decalogue 1

Pawel (Wojciech Klata), Decalogue 1

If I had to formulate the message of my Decalogue, I’d say,
‘Live carefully, with your eyes open, and try not to cause pain.’

– Krzysztof Kieslowski[i]

The late Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue (1988), one of cinema’s great religious masterpieces, had its origins in the depressing bleakness of Polish life in the mid-1980s. “Chaos and disorder ruled . . . everywhere, everything, practically everybody’s life,” wrote the filmmaker. “Tension, a feeling of hopelessness, and a fear of yet worse to come were obvious. I sensed mutual indifference behind polite smiles and had the overwhelming impression that, more and more frequently, I was watching people who didn’t really know why they were living.”[ii]

Driven to explore the questions of why we suffer and how we live, Kieslowski collaborated with Krzysztof Piesiewicz (not a writer but a great talker) to develop a series of scripts based on the Ten Commandments, which he then directed as ten one-hour episodes for Polish television. Subsequent theatrical screenings of the 584-minute series brought him instant international acclaim. A beautiful new restoration is now available on Blu-ray, but if you ever get a chance to see it on the big screen, don’t miss it. I’ve done the full immersion twice––in the nineties, and two months ago­­––and each time I exited the theater deeply affected, as though emerging from an all-night liturgy.

To call this work “religious” may seem a misnomer to those who think religious art requires explicit messaging, dogmatic certainty or a happy resolution of narratives. Decalogue offers neither clear answers nor divine fixes. Instead, it combs the landscape of doubt and anguish for the elusive traces of a power or presence which we might call grace, or even “God.”

Kieslowski’s given name, Krzysztof, means “Christ,” but he staunchly resisted religious labels and institutions. He was, he said, an “agnostic mystic,” a searcher attuned to something beyond the immanent and empirical. In exploring the idea of the Commandments as transcendent guides for living, he argued that “an absolute point of reference does exist … it’s something which is lasting, absolute, evident and is not relative… especially for people like me, who are weak, who are looking for something, who don’t know.”[iii]

The Commandments are not so much about the dictates and prohibitions in themselves as they are about relationships. In setting limits on human failings––violence, acquisitiveness, exploitation, idolatry, etc.––they create a safe space to flourish in just relation with one another, while at the same time binding human community in a covenantal relationship with a transcendent “point of reference.” As they prod us toward love of God and neighbor, the Commandments foster the deep interconnectedness which theologians call the image and way of divinity.

Decalogue’s characters are no saints. They are as weak, muddled and lost as the rest of us. The ten films don’t show us how to keep the Commandments; they show us what happens when we break them––damage and suffering, yes, but possibilities of grace as well.

All the stories involve the residents of a single apartment building, an oppressive concrete high-rise where joy is a rare commodity. Many of its occupants are lonely, broken or suffering. No one smiles much. Since we see little interaction of its inhabitants with a wider socioeconomic environment, it feels like a closed world, a laboratory for experiments in human nature, with God and the film viewer as the only outside observers. The actors themselves were not always sure which commandment applied to their story, since correlations between story and commandment were not always clear in the scripts. And a single story might actually involve multiple commandments.

But even if what to do or how to live may not seem clear to either the characters or the viewers who watch their stories, Decalogue gives us people for whom choices clearly matter. As Kieslowski put it, they “live carefully.” Even when they make a bad choice, it is the product of thought, not just careless impulse. And they convey the sense that even in seemingly small decisions, souls may be won or lost.

The stories are varied and often unexpected in their narrative twists and turns. Every situation centers on family issues: parenting, childhood, conflict, rivalry, infidelity, reconcilation and loss. I won’t spoil the pleasure of anyone’s first viewing by describing the plots, but subjects range from Christmas, ice skating, and stamp collecting to voyeurism, incest, kidnapping, suicide, murder and the holocaust. The totality is less grim than it sounds­­––humor, kindness and even redemption play a part––although Decalogue 1 will break your heart (even as it reveals divine compassion in an unforgettable image), and the murder in Decalogue 5 is almost unwatchable (as is the capital punishment which mirrors the original crime). Kieslowski sought God even in the abysses of human experience. His films are like the homeless drunk in Decalogue 3, dragging a scrawny tree through the streets on Christmas Eve, caroling in a slurred voice, “God is being born.”

If God is really being born, where is the birthplace? How on earth do we find it? German theologian Eberhard Jüngel says that the primary God question for modernity is not “whether God is” or “what God is,” but “where God is.” Before we argue existence or essence, we need to locate divine presence in the stories and places we ourselves inhabit.

Kieslowski looked for it through cinema. His faithful doubt gives Decalogue an honest authenticity. What he finds is not overdetermined by prior theological conviction. As critic Joseph G. Kickasola writes, “There is no evidence that Kieslowski ever felt that he concretely found that Transcendent hope, but his films stand as a testament to the integrity of his search and his longing.”[iv]

How do you show the Divine on film? God’s immanent manifestations may certainly be glimpsed in moments of human forgiveness, reconciliation, healing and liberation. But how might God’s elusive and ineffable transcendent dimension be represented? One way is through film style, using abstraction, reflections, filters, lighting, color, music, sound, and editing to dislodge the eye from habitual perceptions and suggest the possibility of less empirical realities. Decalogue abounds with such visual epiphanies. It is a world full of signs, once you start looking for them.

Another cinematic means of representing invisible Reality is to show one thing while allowing it simultaneously to mean something else. In Decalogue 9, a man lies in the hospital after a bungled suicide attempt. His wife, reading his suicide note, thinks he is dead. A hospital nurse dials her number, and holds a phone to the immobile husband’s ear. His wife answers. “God, you’re there!” she says. He responds, “I am.” It’s a very human moment of reconciliation, but in the context of the story, one cannot miss the dual meaning of this exchange. The object of deepest longing (“God”), thought to be gone forever, has not only been found (“you’re there”), but it answers the seeker with the divine name (“I am”). Fade to black.

In Decalogue 1, a man who has suffered unspeakable loss enters a candlelit church. Angry at a God whose existence he doubts, he overturns an altar beneath a large icon of the Virgin. A candle on top of the icon tips over, spilling its hot wax, which then drips slowly down the Virgin’s cheek. For this viewer at least, this is not simply a mediating image of divine compassion. It feels like direct experience. I know it’s just wax sliding down a painted surface. I know I am watching a film. But still: I see God weeping for our sorrow.

Another indicator of transcendent reality is the recurring sense of fate or destiny suggested by compelling coincidences, as if some intentional, benevolent design is trying to assert itself amid the happenstance of human affairs. There are many such uncanny connections in Decalogue. But such evidence is inherently ambiguous. As Slavoj Žižek wonders, “Is this the final answer of the Real, the proof that we are not alone, that ‘someone is out there,’ or just another stupid coincidence?”[v]

And then there is the enigmatic stranger who neither speaks nor acts. Appearing in every story but one, he witnesses but never intervenes, though at one point we see him wipe away a tear. Like the three strangers in Abraham’s tent, or the one who wrestled all night with Jacob, he suggests divine presence in anonymous human form.

In Decalogue 1, his first appearance is next to a fire, evoking the burning bush. He always seems to possess a secret knowledge of the heart, indicated by his knowing gaze. He turns up, as if omnipresent, at key moments of decision or crisis. Whether he is a powerless divinity who can sympathize but not save, or a mysterious agency which bends human causality, however subtly, toward positve outcomes, remains indeterminate throughout the Decalogue. But crucial changes or differences sometimes follow in his wake.

The script simply calls him “the young man.” The actor, Artur Barcis, thought of him as the Christ. Kieslowski told the actor to play him “as if you were five centimeters off the ground.” One critic compares him to an icon, “materially bearing [God’s] presence and eternal gaze in the broken, desolate community and reminding us that the commandments have always been perceived (by the faithful) to have a living, transcendental dimension.”[vi]

Each time I watch, I am moved by the stranger, so perfectly expressive of God’s ineffable oscillation of presence and absence: a transcendence which cannot be possessed or summoned, though it will never truly abandon us. But perhaps Decalogue’s supreme revelation––an incarnational, unambiguously human image of the divine––is found in an exchange between Pawel, an eleven-year-old boy, and his aunt Irena. Pawel has a great curiosity about God, which his single-parent father, an unbeliever, cannot satisfy. So Pawel takes his questions to his devout Catholic aunt.

Pawel: Do you believe that God exists?
Irena:  Yes.
Pawel: What is God?

Irena puts her arms around Pawel and pulls him close.

Irena:  What do you feel now?
Pawel: I love you.
Irena:   Exactly. That’s what God is.

 

 

Related post:   The ten best religious films

 

[i] Annette Insdorf, Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski (New York: Hyperion/Miramax Books, 1999), 124

[ii] ibid., 69-70

[iii] Monica Maurer, Krzysztof Kieslowski (North Pomfret, VT: Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2000), 13

[iv] Joseph G. Kickasola, The Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski: The Liminal Image (New York: Continuum, 2004), 89

[v] Slavoj Žižek, The Fright of Real Tears: Kryzysztov Kieslowski Between Theory and Philosophy (London: British Film Institute, 2001), 123

[vi] Kickasola, 165-6