Easter Wings: An Ascension Homily

All the other Distance
He hath traversed first –
No new mile remaineth –
Far as Paradise –

 His sure foot preceding –
Tender Pioneer –
Base must be the Coward
Dare not venture – now –

 –– Emily Dickinson, “Life is what we make it”

 

“He ascended into heaven. . .” We say this every time we recite the Creed. But what does it mean? Why do we say it, and what are we being asked to believe? Is it an embarrassing myth, a problematic metaphor, or an inexplicable fact? Many Christians would prefer to hurry past the doctrine of the Ascension, as if it were not something we should examine too closely. Nothing to see here, folks, just keep moving.

But maybe wondering what we do with the story isn’t the right question. What we really need to ask is: What is the story going to do with us?  Where does it want to take us? How might it change us?

John Calvin, the great Reformation theologian, called the Ascension “one of the chiefest points of our faith.”[i] Really? Compared to the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Savior’s disappearance into a cloud seems a relatively minor part of the story. How much does it matter for Christian faith and practice?

Let’s begin with three things that the Ascension is not. First of all, it is not the end of Jesus’ presence in the finite and temporal world, the world of human experience. In the sixth-century Ascension hymn by Romanos, the disciples express their anxiety about being abandoned:

Are you leaving us, O Compassionate?
Parting from those who love you?
You speak to us like someone going on a journey. . .
Do not take yourself far away from those who love you. [ii]

We know that feeling. In a secular age, sometimes is seems that all divinity has just up and left this world without a trace. But if the Ascension was the end of one kind of presence, it was the beginning of another. Jesus is still here, but in a different way.

Secondly, the Ascension is not the Incarnation in reverse, as though God was briefly one of us, and now he’s not. A human life is finite, vulnerable, dependent and particular. It’s radically different than being the infinite God of power and might. But when, as the Bible puts it, Jesus ascended to “the right hand of the Father,” he didn’t leave his humanity behind. He took it with him into the heart of God.

Finally, the Ascension is not just about Jesus.
It’s about us as well.
If we are in Christ, then wherever Jesus goes, we go too.

Let’s look at each of these themes more closely. First, the question of presence and absence. The unique particularity of Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century Jewish male who lived and died like one of us, could only be experienced the way every finite existence is experienced: in its own place and time. If it’s here, it can’t be there. If it’s then, it can’t be now. Once Jesus was laid in the tomb, he could no longer be one object alongside all the other objects in the world. That physical walking-around-the-neighborhood Jesus was gone for good.

When Jesus rose from the dead, his identity and presence were no longer bound by the rules of time and space. His risen body could be both here and there. And the reason the resurrection stories lack the chronological realism of the Passion narratives is because they occur outside historical time. Encounters with the risen Christ were not additional chapters in the life and times of the earthly Jesus. They took place outside of history, at the border between our spatiotemporal world and whatever lies beyond it.

If Easter is not a historical narrative following the rules of space and time, then Ascension was not the next thing that happened after the resurrection appearances, because things don’t happen in sequence outside of time. So instead of thinking of the Ascension as another event in time, think of it as another dimension of resurrection. In his Easter appearances, the risen Jesus assured his friends that he would be with them always. In the Ascension, however, he made it clear that his presence would now have to be experienced in new ways and different forms. First there is Jesus. Then there is no Jesus. Then there is.

Ever since the resurrection,
seeing Jesus has required an act of recognition,
a moment in which we ask, “Jesus, it that you?”

Discerning the myriad forms of Christ’s presence is a fundamental practice for God’s friends in these latter days. We find Christ in sacrament and community, prayer and Scripture. We find Christ through forgiveness and reconciliation, compassion and service, justicemaking and peacemaking. Christ meets us in our neighbor and in the stranger; in solitude and solidarity; in church and on the street. Christ hangs on every cross, and returns in every resurrection.

As Jesus said before he left,
“I am with you always, even to the end of time” (Matt. 28:20).

But if Christ now tends to appear incognito, quietly “as One unknown,”[iii] what do we make of the Ascension’s theology of exaltation, celebrating the Christ “whose glory fills the skies?”

Hail the day that sees him rise,
Glorious to his native skies;
Christ, awhile to mortals given,
Enters now the highest heaven. [iv]

Charles Wesley’s familiar hymn is one of many envisioning the enthronement of Christ as the governor of the world. And we all appreciate the theological irony: the humiliated and rejected one turns out to wear the crown. But such a dramatic reversal risks undoing the Incarnation, as though the finite and vulnerable humanity of Jesus were only a temporary thing, given back after Easter like a rented costume. But that’s not what happened. The Incarnate word came to stay.

Yes, divine and human are radically different. Infinite and finite are radically incommensurate. Creator and creature can never be confused. And yet, without God ceasing to be God or Jesus of Nazareth ceasing to be human, heaven and earth have been joined in holy union, never to be put asunder.

The understanding of Christ as the divine Word, the shaping power of love through whom all things are created and sustained in their being, is not a theological footnote. It is key to the story of redemption that our Savior not only has the whole universe at his back, but that his way, the sacrificial way of self-diffusive love, is the very truth of God, and therefore the truth of how things are meant to go in the world which God has made. To be in Christ is to conform to the most fundamental reality, and the Ascension imagery of divine enthronement celebrates this crucial fact. Christ is the way, the truth and the life. Self-diffusive love is the law of the universe.

However, too much of this and we risk highlighting the divine at the expense of the human in the story of Jesus, as if more of one means less of the other. If we fully embrace our humanity, is there less room for God? Or if we are to be more like God, must we diminish or abandon our humanity because it is essentially incapable of receiving and containing divinity?

Jesus answers these two questions with “no” and “no.” In the self-emptying act of becoming flesh, God lost nothing of the divine nature, for the essence of God is love: the ceaseless mutuality of giving and receiving that constitutes the Holy Trinity. As for human beings, whose very existence is dependent upon, and constituted by, the reception of God’s gifts of life and breath and Spirit, our creaturely nature was never more itself than when Jesus managed to receive divine fullness with an open heart.

In other words, God was never more like God than in the act of giving Godself away. And humanity was never more perfectly realized than when Jesus exercised his created capacity to receive that gift in a finite way. Communion with God does not obliterate our humanity. It fulfills it.

Irenaeus, one of the first great theologians, said in the second century that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”[v] And this fullness of creaturely life is attained, he said, not by “a casting away of the flesh, but by the imparting of the Spirit.”[vi] God loves us just the way God made us: finite, vulnerable, embedded in the absorbing and messy narratives  which comprise human be-ing. And what God desires is for us to live into our creaturely capacity to receive every gift, every blessing, and ascend into the divine communion which is our true and lasting home.

And this brings us to my final point. Ascension is not just about Jesus. It’s about us as well. As members of Christ’s body––with Christ and in Christ––we too are being drawn up to dwell in the vivifying presence of the Holy One––to enjoy God forever.

We call Jesus the Word made flesh because he showed, in the language of human flesh and earthly story, how the divine life could be translated into finite form as a life for others. From birth to death, Jesus was pro nobis: for us. And his Ascension was for us as well, to take us heavenward with him. Jesus did not abandon us. He went on ahead, as the “Tender Pioneer,”[vii] to prepare a place where we may join him.

John Calvin explained the Ascension’s shared, collective dimension in this way:

“Christ did not ascend to heaven in a private capacity, to dwell there alone, but rather that it might be the common inheritance of all the godly, and that in this He has also, by the power of the Holy Spirit, made it possible for us to share in the divine presence [viii]. . . . “Ascension follows resurrection: hence if we are members of Christ we must ascend into heaven.” [ix]

If we are members of Christ, we must ascend. This is the pattern of the Christian life: moving Godward. When I walked the Camino de Santiago, pilgrims encouraged one another with a wonderful word for this Godward movement: Ultreia!, which means Beyond! We are all pilgrims to the Beyond. Growth is our vocation. Transformation is our vocation.

But we can only advance with Christ and in Christ. No wings of our own can defy the gravity of our situation. The sins of the world weigh us down––all that heavy baggage that Thomas Merton called “the contagion of [our] own obsessions, aggressiveness, ego-centered ambitions and delusions.”[x] And in a time of pandemic, fear, illness and grief pile on their own crushing load.

Only the rising and ascending Christ can deliver us from so much gravity. Only Christ can give us what Anglican poet-priest George Herbert called “Easter Wings.” In his poem of that name, in which the words on the page are arranged in the shape of angels’ wings, he admits he can only fly “if I imp thy wing on mine.” He borrowed that peculiar term from falconry: to “imp” means “to engraft feathers in a wing to restore or improve its power of flight.”[xi] In other words, if we want to ascend, we need the help of Christ’s own feathers. If we’re going to fly, we need Easter wings.

As Herbert prays,

With thee
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories.

If you’ve ever heard an English lark, ascending high into the sky as it utters its ecstatic song, you will appreciate the charm of Herbert’s metaphor. A century after Herbert, hymnwriter Isaac Watts wrote my favorite Ascension lyric.

Thence he arose, ascended high,
to show our feet the way.
Up to the Lord our souls shall rise,
on the great rising day. [xii]

Of course, heaven is not susceptible to prepositions: “above,” “beyond,” or even “within” do not tell us where heaven is, since anything beyond space and time has no spatial dimension, and therefore no location. Neither heaven nor God are a place on any map. Still, by God’s grace we may discover their nearness even so, and breathe their atmosphere, in both this world and the next.

For physical and directional beings like ourselves, the imagery of ascending into the sky feels true enough. “Seek the things that are above,” St. Paul tells us (Col. 3:1). “Lift up your hearts,” says the priest at every mass. We don’t have to deny astronomy to know what these things mean. We feel the upward pull.

It’s not a matter of leaving creation behind, or shedding our bodies to become immaterial beings. “Behold, I make all things new,” says the Holy One. All things––not just our souls. The whole creation is being drawn higher and higher, further and further, deeper and deeper into God. Let everything that has breath shout “Glory!”

 

Related posts:

Ascension Day: Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

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

 

[i] John Calvin, Commentary on Acts 1:9, cited in Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), K1249 (The Kindle edition has no page numbers, so I use the Kindle location numbers). Canlis’ rich and thoughtful book is a great read, and has increased my appreciation of Calvin immensely. My other invaluable sources for this essay were Christ the Heart of Creation (Rowan Williams, Bloomsbury 2018) and The Word Made Flesh: A Theology of Incarnation (Ian A. McFarland, WJK 2019).

[ii] Romanos, “Kontakion on the Ascension” in Kontakia: On the Life of Christ, trans. by Archimandrite Ephrem Lash (Harper Collins, 1962).

[iii] This phrase is from a famous passage by Albert Schweitzer: “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who He is.”

[iv] Charles Wesley, “Hail the Day That Sees Him Rise” (1739). The prolific 18th century writer composed over 6000 hymns, at least 10 of which are on the Ascension. However, his brother John, who gave some 40,000 sermons, never preached on the topic.

[v] Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 202), Adversus Haereses IV.20.7, cited in Canlis, K2246.

[vi] Adversus Haereses V.8.1, in Canlis, K1960.

[vii] Emily Dickinson, “Life – is what we make it.” I quote the last 2 stanzas in the epigraph.

[viii] Calvin, Commentary on John 14:2, in Canlis K1218.

[ix] Calvin, Commentary on Colossians 3:1, in Canlis K991.

[x] Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action, p. 158, cited in Martin Laird, An Ocean of Light (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 11.

[xi] Helen Wilcox, The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 148 n.19.

[xii] Isaac Watts, “Why do we mourn departing friends” (1707). Set to a shape note tune by Timothy Swan in 1801, it is #163b in The Sacred Harp (Bremen, GA: Sacred Harp Publishing Company, 1991). A powerful version from the 2nd Irish Shape Note Convention (2012) can be heard here: https://youtu.be/7mCFMKNJIAg

 

Jesus and the Woman at the Well: A Homily for Lent 3

Churches are shuttered here in Puget Sound, to maintain social distancing in the pandemic. If I were preaching on this Sunday’s gospel, it would go something like this. Meanwhile, dear reader, stay safe, be well, and pray for all who are suffering or fearful in this harrowing time.

Jesus and the Samaritan woman (12c Jruchi Gospels, Georgia)

If I were called in
to construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
to dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

–– Philip Larkin, “Water”

A glass of water might not strike you as sacred, unless you’ve been in the desert about three days without a drink. At that point, which is the longest humans can go without water, you would find that glass to be the most blessed of sacraments: the water of life indeed.

Desert people know the sacredness of water. When the ancient Jews wandered the wilderness of Sinai, thirst was their constant companion. They cried out to God with parched tongues. Not politely, like Episcopalians. They complained bitterly and their faith wavered, until God made water pour out of barren rock. Now maybe the Israelites simply found a seepage of brackish water coming out of a rocky cliff. But it was enough to supply their need. They recognized it as a miracle then, and they remembered it as miracle ever after:

God made streams come out of the rock,
and poured down water like rivers.   (Psalm 78:16)

And once the Jews reached the Promised Land and built the Temple, they would gather every autumn, just before the rains ended the summer drought, to remember how God had preserved them in their wanderings, and to re-imagine their future as a consummation of the Providential love which their ancestors had sipped from a rock in the desert’s deadly furnace.

At this festival, the words of the prophet Zechariah was recited:

And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication
on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem…

When that day comes,
a fountain will be opened for the house of David
and the inhabitants of Jerusalem,
to wash sin and impurity away. (Zech. 12:10, 13:1)

And every morning of the seven-day festival, a procession descended to the Gihon spring at the foot of the Temple hill. The people carried festal plumes made of palm, myrtle and willow branches––trees which signal the presence of water in arid lands. And from the spring a priest would fill a golden pitcher as the choir sang a verse from Isaiah:

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. (Isaiah 12:3)

Then the procession ascended to the Temple through the Gate of the Waters to circle the altar chanting, “We beg you, Lord, save us! We beg you, Lord, give us good fortune!” Finally, the priest with the golden pitcher poured the water into a silver spout, draining it onto the surface of the altar.

And it was at this solemn moment, the gospel of John tells us, that Jesus suddenly cried out from the congregation, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me! Let anyone who believes in me come and drink.”

It is a startling scene, and you can imagine the offense it caused––this country preacher from Galilee offering himself as the new Temple from which will flow the living waters of salvation. Who was he to claim the divine prerogative? Only God can satisfy the soul’s deepest thirst.

A few chapters earlier in John’s gospel (John 4:5-42), Jesus makes the same invitation in a very different setting––no crowds, no special occasion––just a quiet well in a small town. Jesus is sitting by himself in the noonday sun. A woman comes by to draw water.

The story of the woman at the well has sometimes been interpreted as an expose of the woman’s past: “WOMAN HAS 5 HUSBANDS––FILM AT 11.” But subtler readings have seen the husbands as metaphors for Samaritan apostasy. The Samaritans were the ones who abandoned the god of their ancestors and began to worship five different deities imported from other middle eastern cultures. They had been looking for love in all the wrong places, and until they renewed their covenant relationship with the God of the Exodus, they had, in the language of this metaphor, “no husband.”

But Jesus is not there to condemn the woman––or her people. He is there to give her something. He doesn’t demean her as a woman, a Samaritan, or a serial divorcee. He treats her with respect, as does the gospel writer. It’s the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the gospels. The woman is bright and assertive, fully capable of following Jesus as he leads her from what she knows to what she doesn’t know, drawing her closer and closer to the wellspring of salvation.

The meeting place is significant. As John’s original audience would know, the well is a place where future spouses meet. Abraham’s servant found Isaac’s bride at a well. And it was at a well that Jacob met Rachel and Moses met Zipporah. So the setting, as well as the dialogue, is charged with marital imagery. There is a candor and intimacy to their playful banter, and you could say that Jesus is wooing the woman––wooing her into a covenant relationship with God, a relationship that is intimate and life-giving, a relationship that involves a full partnership in the divine task of transforming and redeeming the world.

 It was one of those moments when deep calls to deep.

It joined us together, the well,
the well led me into you…   (Karol Wojtyla)

There was a dawn I remember
when my soul heard something
from your soul. I drank water
from your spring and felt
the current take me.    (Rumi)

Deep calls to deep. Something in the woman responds to something in Jesus. Her own longing, her own thirst, leads her toward the source of life. The fountain of grace constantly draws to itself all those who thirst, said Gregory of Nyssa. He was a fourth century theologian who saw thirst as a gift from God, because it was a built-in mechanism to prevent us from walling ourselves up within the prison of self-sufficiency.

God has created our tendency to thirst and to move toward the divine by a command that is constant and perpetual. . . The one who is rising towards God constantly experiences this continual incitement toward further progress.

In other words, thirst reminds us that we need something beyond ourselves.
Thirst draws us toward God.

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God. (Psalm 42:1-2)

And if we aren’t in touch with our thirst, we are in serious trouble. Thirty years ago I was in the Sinai desert with a group of pilgrims. Each of us had a partner, and each pair was responsible for reminding each other to drink some water every fifteen or twenty minutes. In the desert, the air is so dry that you can become unaware that you are sweating, and it is possible to become seriously dehydrated before you feel thirsty. So we all had to remind each other not to forget to drink. We helped each other stay in touch with our thirst.

Water isn’t just a metaphor for an ethereal idea. Water is a very practical, everyday miracle and divine gift, as many still know in parts of our world where you can’t just turn on the tap.

Gail Ramshaw writes about such places: “Twice a day, women walk the distance to the local well, to carry back on heads or shoulders the pots of water needed to live. To drink, cook, wash vessels, wash clothes, wash themselves, bathe wounds, clean the house, water the animals…Whether washing off the newborn, washing off the corpse, washing out her monthly rags, or wiping up the family vomit, it is the woman in many societies who aches for a source of endlessly flowing water, a fountain of pure water filling every need.”

What is your thirst?
What is your need?
Where do you go to find living water?
Is the water a gift we receive from outside ourselves,
or is the well to be found in our innermost heart?

As the Church began to explore this question over the centuries, both answers were given. The Latin west emphasized the water’s origins outside ourselves. Jesus is the Source, bestowing God’s Spirit upon us. Blood and water flowed from his side at the cross, and all the baptized have bathed in that precious stream.

But the Byzantine east looked to the Source within us. As Jesus says, Whoever believes in me, from within them shall flow rivers of living water. Once we have found Jesus and received the Spirit, we have within us a fountain that never fails, a well that never runs dry.

Gregory of Nyssa, taking his imagery from the Song of Songs, says that “the bride embraces and holds what flows into the well of her soul, and thus she becomes a storehouse of that living water that flows, or rather rushes down, from Lebanon.” The Source of living water may be far off, way up in those snowy mountains of Lebanon or in the eternal being of God, but it is making its way down through the divine watershed until it bubbles up within the well of our own heart, our own soul.

Has this been true for you? Sometimes you are a well which contains only the water which has come in from outside, and you are very conscious of your own emptiness, your own dryness, and you know that you are receiving a gift not of your own making. You are dry as dust and ashes, waiting to be drenched with Easter water.

And sometimes you are a spring whose water gushes up from your deepest places, and you are aware that a gift is being given through you that will quench the thirst of others, and you are surprised and grateful to be part of love’s graceful dance.

What’s it going to be for you today? Are you here to drink from the well of life? Or is this your day to become, like Jesus, the water-giver for some stranger who just happens to be sitting next to you? Sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both.

Now the gospel isn’t just about satisfying our own thirst.
Living water is meant to be passed around.
Water that stops moving becomes stagnant.

After the Samaritan woman reaches the point in the conversation when she begins to grasp what Jesus is offering, what does she do? She runs off to tell her neighbors about this amazing water she has found. She doesn’t hoard that water for herself, after her own needs have been met. She keeps the gift moving. And soon her neighbors find the water of life welling up in them.

Did you notice in the story what happens to her jar? Like the fisherman leaving their nets, she leaves her jar behind, so joyous the message, so urgent the task, to help her friends taste living water for themselves.

She won’t need that jar, by the way.
Living water will flow wherever she goes,
as long as she remains in God.
Just strike the rock, and streams will gush.

I find it encouraging, to see the woman run off like that, so eager to share the gospel before she herself fully grasps it. That means that you and I don’t have to wait until we get it all figured out. We can start right now to share the living water. Even beginners can do Love’s work and manifest Love’s joy.

One final point. I love the line, “He told me everything I have ever done!” He knows everything about me, and he’s still interested.  There is nothing we can do to make God love us any more than God already does. We know this, don’t we? God is infinite love. We can’t earn God’s love, because it is freely given. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more.

But––equally important––we can do to make God love us less. Sometimes we forget this important truth. God knows my whole story––even the messy parts––and I am still God’s beloved.

“He told me everything I have ever done!” And the way that Christ tells the story of the woman––as well as the story you and the story of me––is that every step of the way, however halting or circuitous, turns out in the end to be a journey to the well.

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Behold, I freely give
The living water; thirsty one,
Stoop down, and drink, and live!”
I came to Jesus, and I drank
Of that lifegiving stream;
My thirst was quenched,
My soul revived,
and now I live in him.   (Horatius Bonar)

Lorraine Coleman, an African-American writer, tells of the first time her mother took her to town in the South. She ran toward the drinking fountains, hurrying right past the one labeled “white” to turn on the one marked “colored”. She was so disappointed. The water was clear. She had expected a rainbow of colors.

Let us run to the waters with that kind of eagerness, that kind of expectation. We will not be disappointed. The fountain of God will not let us down. In it we will find the rainbow; we will find the light that darkness cannot overcome; we will find the streams of mercy.

Then the angel showed me the river of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb…The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come! . . . Let everyone who is thirsty, come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” (Rev 22:1, 17)

If we really want it, it’s there for the taking. In her poem, “Like the Samaritan Woman by the Well,” Benedictine nun Hae-in Lee describes the beatitude of such a gift to such a seeker:

My long stagnant sorrow and thirst
like drops of water in my jar
have risen up to dance, all smiling now.

Let all who are thirsty, come.

 

Are All Welcome? The Red Hen and the Spirit of Eucharist

Vincent van Gogh, The Potato Eaters (1885)

Within my house there shall not dwell
one who practices deceit.
A speaker of lies shall not stand firm
before my eyes.

–– Psalm 101:7

 

Jesus loved to break bread with people. He did it all the time––not just with his friends, but with anyone hungry enough to sit down with him, no matter who they were. Sharing a meal together was so much a part of who Jesus was that we who love him practice table fellowship as our most sacred act.

Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, I am with you.

Christ’s table is not a privilege of the righteous. Sinners always go to the head of the line. As our primary image of divine hospitality, it is meant to be a place of welcome, not exclusion. Whenever we gather to share the bread of heaven with one another in an act of wondrous love, we become a visible and concrete image of a world come home to God.

All who hunger, never strangers. Seeker, be a welcome guest.
Come from restlessness and roaming, here in joy we keep the feast.
We, that once were lost and scattered, in communion’s love have stood.
Taste and see the grace eternal, taste and see that God is good.[1]

The eucharist reveals the meaning of eating together. Every shared meal is a chance for holy communion. We receive the gifts of the earth, thankful for the labor and skill which have set them before us, and we share them with one another in love and mutual delight. Whenever we eat together with mindfulness and gratitude, we taste and see that God is good.

In a recent New Yorker essay, Adam Gopnik considers “commensality,” the social anthropology of eating. “Nothing is more fundamental to human relations than deciding who has a place at the table,” he writes, noting that Jesus broke all his culture’s rules when he dined with outcasts and sinners. Turning his attention to our own time, Gopnik then writes, “The modern restaurant—invented in Paris, after the Revolution—is a little temple of commensality: all you need, as shown in so many early Chaplin shorts, is five cents to enter and then to share.”

When Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, was asked by the owner of Virginia’s Red Hen restaurant to leave the premises without being fed, was the temple of commensality being desecrated? Some have thought so, bemoaning the “incivility” of denying service to a fellow citizen. Doesn’t such an act undermine the norms of peaceful coexistence and exacerbate partisan rancor? Shouldn’t we be allowed to eat in peace no matter who we are?

While acknowledging the importance of civility and social reciprocity, Gopnik argues that “someone who has decided to make it her public role to extend, with a blizzard of falsehoods, the words of a pathological liar, and to support, with pretended piety, the acts of a public person of unparalleled personal cruelty—well, that person has asked us in advance to exclude her from our common meal. You cannot spit in the plates and then demand your dinner. The best way to receive civility at night is to not assault it all day long. It’s the simple wisdom of the table.”[2]

Well said. But once you begin to cross the line into shunning, shaming and excluding, where do you stop? When the cold-blooded Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen sat down in a Mexican(!) restaurant, angry protesters drove her out with cries of “Shame! Shame!” for her complicity in the atrocious abuse of immigrant children. Others gathered outside her home to blast her with the heartbreaking audio of border children crying and wailing in a government detention center.

Responding to the unspeakable cruelties of the Administration, Congresswoman Maxine Waters sounded a controversial call to arms:

“We want history to record that we stood up, that we pushed back, that we fought. If you see anybody from that cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them, and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere!”[3]

I’m not likely to spot any of those monsters on my little island anytime soon, but if I did, I’d be pretty tempted to remind them loud and clear that racism, bigotry and cruelty are not okay. Uncivil? Perhaps. But as Mark Sumners writes, “the demand being made for ‘civility’ isn’t about language at all. It’s about throwing a ring of protection around the powerful. It’s about pretending that people whose actions wreck millions of lives on a whim, are cocooned from the consequences of their actions, not just because they have money, and connections, and resources, but because their power puts them on a different plane.”[4]

Of course, confrontation can go too far. During the French Revolution, when Marie Antoinette was under house arrest on an upper floor of her palace, a protester stuck the guillotined head of an aristocratic consort on a pole, holding it high to stare at the queen through her bedroom window. One can only imagine what Ms. Antoinette might have tweeted in response!

Returning to the question of commensality, “the wisdom of the table,” how should churches respond to the presence of notorious sinners when they come to Christ’s table? In the fourth century, St. Ambrose withheld communion from the Emperor Theodosius after his soldiers slaughtered 7000 Greeks attending a sporting event in Thessalonika.[5]More recently, El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero excommunicated government officials responsible for the murder of priests and nuns.

While the icon of an open and welcoming table is central to Christian practice, there have been those exceptional occasions when it needed to be said that you can’t spit on the Body of Christ one day and consume it piously the next.

When I was a young priest in Los Angeles, I was asked to assist at the liturgy of a congregation I did not know. After the mass, the rector told me I had given communion to the city’s chief of police, whose department was known for abusive practices toward minorities and peace activists. “I didn’t tell you beforehand that he was in attendance,” the rector told me later. “I was afraid you wouldn’t have given him communion.”

He laughed when he said this, so I wasn’t sure how much he was joking. Had I known, how would I have felt about it? Excommunication is a serious matter, certainly not undertaken spontaneously, without considerable discernment and the blessing of a higher authority (i.e., the bishop, not God, who remains provocatively silent on such matters). And since “we are all bastards but God loves us anyway,”[6]who dares to risk the presumptuous task of judging worthiness rather than dispensing mercy?

Still, I wonder. Would I give communion to Hitler? Or Putin? Or Trump? Put the bread of heaven in a hand soaked with so much blood?[7]Assuming they all remained obstinately unrepentant, would I somehow be enabling or endorsing their behavior by affirming their place at the table? Or would giving them communion, even if they received it unworthily, signify that God’s love knows no obstacles, not even the hardened and hateful heart?

 

 

 

[1]Hymn text by Sylvia G. Dunstan (GIA Publications, 1991).

[2]Adam Gopnik, “Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Who Deserves a Place at the Table,” New Yorkeronline, June 25, 2018 (https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/sarah-huckabee-sanders-and-who-deserves-a-place-at-the-table)

[3]For an excellent take on the overheated reactions to Waters, cf. Crystal Marie Fleming, “Maxine Waters and the trope of the angry black woman,” Vox, June 29, 2018 (https://www.vox.com/first-person/2018/6/29/17515192/maxine-waters-sarah-sanders-red-hen-restaurant-trump)

[4]Mark Sumner, “The ‘civility’ debate isn’t about language, it’s about power,” Daily Kos, June 26, 2018 (https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2018/6/26/1775471/-The-civility-debate-isn-t-about-language-it-s-about-power)

[5]It’s a complicated story. The soldiers wanted revenge for the killing of their commander by an angry mob of citizens fed up with abuses by the Roman military. Theodosius, hearing the news in a distant city, flew into a rage, and sent a message giving carte blanche to the soldiers for retaliatory action. He soon sent a second order rescinding the first, but it was too late. The soldiers’ rampage had already taken 7000 lives. Although the emperor himself didn’t wield a sword, he bore the responsibility, and his striking submission to church discipline was an historic recognition that divine authority rules the powers of the world.

[6]When Will Cambell, a Baptist preacher, writer, and wonderful disturber of the peace, was asked to sum up Christianity in ten words or less, this was his reply, as recorded in his moving book, Brother to a Dragonfly.

[7]Trump is already responsible for the deaths of countless Americans in Puerto Rico, and he will bear the blame for tens of thousands of premature deaths due to his animus against health care. His suicidal refusal to address climate change, however, will ultimately be his most murderous legacy.

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.

Where did Jesus go?

Ascension has always been a favorite feast for me. This is what I preached this morning at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Medina, Washington.

Ascension for blog

In the 1960’s, the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci interviewed
the American astronaut Wally Schirra:

“How does it feel to be up there?” she asked him.
“How does it feel to be floating weightlessly up there?”

He shook his head slowly. “Feeling weightless… I don’t know… You feel exquisitely comfortable, that’s the word for it, exquisitely… You feel comfortable and you feel you have so much energy, such an urge to do things, such ability to do things.  And you work well, yes, you think well, you move well, without sweat, without difficulty, as if the biblical curse, “in the sweat of thy face and in sorrow,” no longer exists. As if you’d been born again.”

“And when you come back to Earth, Mr. Schirra? …
how does it feel … to come back to Earth?  What’s it like?”

“For me it’s a great feeling of regret, a great sorrow. It starts when the retro rockets are about to fire and the time indicator shows how much time you still have left, and you’re no longer weightless, and the dropping needle takes away your joy and restores your weight, your biblical curse… Zero zero; three zero minutes and zero zero seconds… Zero zero; one zero minute and zero zero seconds… It’s robbing you of … your exquisite lightness, … and you can’t do anything about it, and while you are still thinking, you can’t do anything about it, there it’s nearly at an end, there it’s ending, there it’s ended.  While you’re thinking that, you’re back here on the Earth. No, returning isn’t a sigh of relief.  You can love the Earth with all the love in the world: Returning is regret, is sorrow.”

I have always loved this intriguing testimony someone who was able, for a time,
to escape the bonds of earth, to shed the weight of gravity
and experience the levity of the heavens.

Do you think the Ascension was like that?
Do you think it was a relief for Jesus to shed the weight of earthly existence,
to finally leave it all behind: the sweat and thirst, the labor and sorrow,
of embodied life?

Sometimes, when life gets hard, it is tempting to think so, and there is no lack of theological endorsements for a strict dualism between heaven and earth, between human and divine. But the whole point of the incarnation, the embedding of God into the human condition, is to affirm the union of heaven and earth, not their separation.

Christ did not come among us only to leave us behind in the end.
And the Resurrection, far from dismissing embodied life as a prison house,
something we need to escape from,
shows it to be worthy of eternal preservation and affirmation.

Then what is the meaning of this mysterious Ascension story, which is told only by Luke, by the way? None of the other gospel writers found it necessary to paint a literal picture of Jesus’ departure from the visible world. Since they did not go beyond the story of Jesus, they could conclude their account with him still around, not yet departed. Unlike Luke, they didn’t go on to tell the story of what happened next, when Jesus was no longer present in the way he had been in his earthly ministry, or in the resurrection appearances, which themselves also came to an end.

But once those unique experiences did cease to occur, the early Church had to adjust to the physical absence of Jesus. And in order to tell that story, Luke needed to remove Jesus from the stage. So he showed him ascending into a cloud. It is a lovely image, that expressive and resonant vertical metaphor for transcendence.

But in his Ascension story, Luke doesn’t provide the kind of detail expected of realistic narrative. He doesn’t try to make us believe Jesus went away just so. No special effects required. It’s simply “now you see him, now you don’t.”
We’ve all watched the sun go away on a cloudy day. Maybe it was like that.

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.

The essential part of Luke’s story is not the means of Jesus’ departure,
but the meaning of his absence:
Where is he now, and will we ever see him again?

In a sense, Jesus is always going away.
Jesus never remains where we leave him.
Not in the tomb. Not in the sky. Not in the Bible.
Jesus comes to us out of the future, not the past.

It may take time to recognize the way his body will look the next time we see him.
It may look like a homeless man pushing his cart down the sidewalk,
the exhausted mother carrying her baby,
the victims of disaster and war on our televisions.
It may look like the face in the mirror,
or the ragtag band sharing bread and wine on a Sunday morning.
It may look like the whole wide world.

If the Incarnate One had clung to the body of a first century Jewish male,
God could have never become the rest of us.
Without that body to keep us fixated on past appearances,
we learn to see Christ everywhere.
The absence following the Ascension creates an emptiness
which God can fill with a new, expanded “body.”

British theologian Graham Ward celebrates the Ascension as an image of the “transcorporeal” nature of Christ’s body, which is always becoming something else, something larger, something more.

It can’t be comprehended, grasped, pinned down or exhausted.
Always pouring itself out, always being transfigured,
it does not remain a discreet, locatable object that is “here” or “not here,”
lost from sight behind a cloud or kicking back in some place called heaven
where we may venerate it from afar.

“The specificity of his body is unstable from the beginning,” writes Ward. “Jesus’ body is extendible, can expand to incorporate other bodies, make them extensions of his own.”

In other words, his body is not erased by the cross, the tomb or the ascension.
It is expanded.
We ourselves become part of it, as we discover that our own bodies,
instead of being the self-enclosure of solitary egos living in and for ourselves,
are part of a larger, permeable, interdependent existence.
Never complete in ourselves,
we are inseparable from what is outside us and beyond us.

Christ before us, Christ behind us, Christ under our feet,
Christ within us, Christ over us, let all around us be Christ.

If you want to see Jesus, don’t stand looking up into the heavens.
Just look around right where you are.

I read a story in The Christian Century magazine about a regional gathering of Lutherans that happened to fall on Ascension Day. The planning committee was trying to think of ideas for the liturgy, and someone suggested blowing out the Paschal Candle after the Ascension story was read.

The Paschal Candle is first lit at the Easter Vigil. A cantor sings, “The Light of Christ,” and everyone responds, “Thanks be to God!” This great candle then burns as a symbol of the risen Christ at every liturgy throughout the fifty days of Easter, ending with Pentecost Sunday. To blow it out at the Ascension would certainly be dramatic, but to make such a literal representation, as if the Easter presence were somehow being extinguished, would be not only be a little depressing but also very misleading.

Jesus did not vanish like smoke, never to return.
He came again in the fire of empowering Spirit.
And in the meantime, in the space between the Ascension and Pentecost,
in that time of absence and waiting which every believer knows all too well,
there is room to discover the new ways Christ is being manifested in our life together
as the community and communion of God’s friends..

W. H. Auden said that when a writer dies, he becomes his readers.
So we might say that when Jesus ascended, he became the Church.

And what about those Lutherans? What did they finally decide to do in that liturgy? The Paschal Candle was indeed extinguished after the reading of the Ascension gospel. But before this happened, just when the reader finished, a dancer entered, moving among the people with a collection of hand candles, lighting them one by one from the Paschal Candle, and offering them to each of the worshippers. Once everyone had a lighted candle, the dancer bowed before the Paschal Candle, and put it out. The smoke rose up and disappeared into the air. But the room remained full of light, as all those little flames flickered in the hands of the people.

The Light of Christ was not something they had watched disappear.
The Light of Christ was something they themselves had become.