What is God? — A Trinity Sermon

Abbey at Conques on Le Chemin de St. Jacques de Compostelle, France (Jim Friedrich)

What is God? When the biblical Jews asked that question, they responded from their experience of salvation history.  God is the one who told me to leave behind everything I knew and set out for God-knows-where, says Abraham. God is the one who asked me to go back to the land of oppression and enslavement so I could speak truth to power, says Moses. God is the one who made a covenant with us on Mount Sinai, in the cloud of unknowing. God is the one who remembered us in the days of exile. God is the one who brought us home from Babylon. 

Then Jesus came along, and even though he lived and died as a human being, there were those who experienced the fullness of God in the unique particularity of his life, death, and resurrection. The risen Lord, who said “I am with you always,” would become an object of worship very early in the life of the Church. 

And after the Ascension of Jesus came the Holy Spirit, not only as an indwelling presence but also as a radically transformative force, in whom divine fullness was equally and uniquely manifest.  

For the early Christians, then, the One they called God had been revealed to have three distinct ways of being: Source, Savior, and Spirit. Love who loves us; Word who saves us; Spirit who renews us. And before long they were offering worship not only to the God of Israel, but to Jesus and the Holy Spirit as well. 

They were not polytheists. They rejected pagan notions of a heaven and earth populated by competing deities. But their experiences of God in Christ and God in the Spirit were unique enough to differentiate them from the Holy One who sent Jesus into the world. 

At the same time, the second and third Persons were not understood to be partial or lesser versions of God. Only the true God can save us, as Christ did. Only the true God can sanctify us, as the Spirit does. 

Those first Christians couldn’t deny their experience, or the witness of Scripture. Christ was God. The Spirit was God. But that posed a conceptual problem. 

How can the Three be One? How can the One be Three? Mathematics or logic can’t solve this puzzle. Several centuries of ecumenical councils struggled with the questions, doing their best to preserve the paradox of Three in One and One in Three from collapsing into the simplicity of God as “One is One and all alone.” 

Although it would have put a lot of theologians out of work, It would have been a lot easier just to stick with the Oneness. But that would not have been true to Christian experience. The Threeness is essential to our informed—and formative—encounters with God. As contemporary Catholic theologian Catherine LaCugna puts it, “The doctrine of the Trinity is ultimately a practical doctrine with radical consequences for Christian life.” [1]

Does that mean that the friends of God have to master the bewildering terminology and complicated nuances of ancient dogma in order to live the Christian life? Will heaven admit only the most sophisticated thinkers? Let’s hope not. 

I’ve read a lot of theology and Church history over the last fifty years, and I still have trouble remembering the differences between Monophysites, Monothelites, Monarchians, Modalists, Ebionites and Sabellians. As Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama wonders, what if we were to exchange the metaphysical tangles of the West for more down-to-earth analogies. For example, he asks, what might the yin-yang of “pepper” and “salt” tell us about the divine nature? [2] Or St. Patrick’s shamrock, for that matter. 

For the Offertory anthem at the liturgy for Trinity Sunday, Mozart’s Laudate Dominum, I’ve assembled 26 concrete images of persons and objects grouped in threes. As you watch the video, I invite you to contemplate the Christian koan of Three-in-One and One-in-Three. 

Now then, what shall we say about the Trinity? One of the sixteenth-century reformers counseled intellectual modesty. “We adore the mysteries of the Godhead,” he said. “That is better than to investigate them.” [3] In a similar vein, a contemporary theologian reminds us that the “triune God is not simply unknown, but positively known to be unknown and unknowable—which is a dear and profound knowledge.” [4]

But on Trinity Sunday, it is the preacher’s ritual duty to offer a sacrifice of ignorance on the altar of unknowing. So here we go.

Back in the day—the fourth century, that is—when the Council of Nicaea was parsing theories of the divine life, theology was a popular sport, and people kicked around trinitarian doctrines the way some of us recite the arcane numbers of baseball metrics today. But in the late Middle Ages, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity went into cold storage. By the time of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant could say that Trinitarian theology had “no practical relevance at all, even if we think we understand it.” [5]

In recent centuries, any sort of God talk has been drained of content for many people. We live in a secular age, where a divine power who is in but not of the world has become increasingly unthinkable. Religion, in the world’s eyes, has become more of a private matter than a public truth. 

And yet, the Spirit continues to work, and in the last few decades we have seen a remarkable resurgence of attention and thought devoted to the meaning and relevance of the Trinity. It’s not just white, western males doing this work. Feminists, Africans, Asians, Middle Easterners and Latin Americans are all bringing fresh and urgent perspectives to Christianity’s core doctrine of God. And their work is of enormous consequence for both our personal faith and our common life.

The Nicene Creed declares that the three Persons are “of one substance.” In other words, whatever God is made of, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have all got it—and in equal measure. 

But what is that “substance?” Is it a divine essence which existed prior to, or in addition to, the Persons themselves? Is there a one God hidden behind or beyond the Trinity? Such a notion would undercut the completeness of the Trinity, making it dependent on something external—in other words, less than fully divine in itself. 

Or is the divine substance like a pie which has been cut into three equal pieces? That would divide God into parts and lose the unity of the whole. It would also make the Persons less than eternal, since the whole pie would have to precede the creation of the separate pieces. 

But what if we were to give up the idea of divine “substance” as some kind of stuff which exists on its own and gets divided into three, or possesses a reality in addition to whatever the three Persons consist of? What if being the divine Trinity does not mean to have a divine substance, a kind of primordial stuff. What if being a Trinity means to be in relation with one another? 

Perhaps the Trinitarian God is best described not as a fixed, objective entity, but as an event or activity, an eternal communion shared between the Persons. The Greek word perichoresisdescribes the divine communion as a dance where the partners are in continuous motion, weaving in and out of one another. 

This conceptual shift from substance to relation is a central theme of contemporary theology. As feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson writes (using inclusive terms for the Persons):

“The mutual coinherence, the dancing around together of Spirit, Wisdom and Mother; or of mutual Love, Love from Love, and unoriginate Love; or of the three divine persons – this defines who God is as God. There is no divine nature as a fourth thing that grounds divine unity in difference apart from relationality. Rather, being in communion constitutes God’s very essence.” [6]

A couple of British theologians elaborate this point when they say that the divine Persons do not “exist over against the others as self-enclosed centers of consciousness, as with human persons … but rather each dwells in the other through a kind of inter-permeation.” Then they sum it up this way: “The consciousnesses are fused but not confused.” [7]

This is not a new idea. The First Epistle of John assures us that “God is love” (4:8). And love, as we all know, cannot exist alone, without an “other” to share with, give to, receive from. Love exists only by going beyond the self in a process of perpetual self-offering.

Love is not a secondary or optional property of God. Love is who God is, and how God exists. Simply put: “the Trinity is not derived from God’s essence; the Trinity is God’s essence.” The communion and community of the Persons is God’s nature and essence.” [8]

Jürgen Moltmann notes the impossibility of a loving God being otherwise. “God cannot find bliss in eternal self-love,” he writes, “if selflessness is part of love’s very nature. God is in all eternity self-communicating love.” [9] A Kenyan Christian, John Mbiti, who comes from a more communal culture, puts this even more succinctly:

“I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.”[10]

We may struggle with this interdependent Trinitarian model because our culture has taught us to think of a person as an autonomous individual, whose identity, mind and will are separate and independent from every other person. 

But what the doctrine of the Trinity tells us is that you cannot be a person alone. You can only be a person in relationship with others. Addressing another, listening to another, conversing with another, loving one another, offering ourselves to one another—these are the means of becoming a person and existing as a person, if we are to live in the image of the relational personhood of the divine, in whom the one does not exist without the many. 

When we hear Jesus say, you must lose yourself to find yourself,[11] we may think he’s speaking of death, either metaphorical or physical, some kind of painful stripping away. And sometimes that is the case. 

But I think Jesus is also describing the divinely grounded process of communion and community. “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” St. Athanasius had a wonderful term for this state of being in communion. He called it “reciprocal delight.”[12]  We are all in this together, God says, and so say God’s friends as well.  

It seems especially fitting at this particular moment to contemplate communion as the essential and constitutive fact of divine life, for in one week’s time we will gather together, in person at last, as the Body of Christ at St. Barnabas. It has been fourteen months since we last did this. What joy it will be to share the sacrament of God’s self-diffusive love once again and celebrate the bonds between us.

After so many words about the Holy Trinity, let me conclude with an image. Thirty years ago, Polish film director Krzysztof Kieslowski made a series of 10 one-hour films called Decalogue. Each of the films is based on one of the Ten Commandments, and the series is one of the masterpieces of spiritual cinema. [13]

Pawel (Wojciech Klata), Decalogue 1

In the first film, there’s 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 Irena, his devout Catholic aunt: 

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

Irena doesn’t answer with words. 
Instead, she 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.



[1] Catherine M. LaCugna, cited in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, The Trinity: Global Perspectives (Louisville, KY: Westminster ]ohn Knox Press, 2007), 179.. This is the opening sentence of LaCugna’s God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (1991). As you will see, I found Kärkkäinen’s study of recent Trinitarian theology to be an invaluable resource. 

[2] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 312.

[3] Philip Melanchthon, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, xvi.

[4] Elizabeth Johnson, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 212, from Johnson’s She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse(1993).

[5] Immanuel Kant, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 206.

[6] Elizabeth Johnson, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 56.

[7] Ninian Smart & Steven Konstantine, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 249, from their Christian Systematic Theology: Theology in a World Context (1991).

[8] Richard Rice, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 140.

[9] Jurgen Moltmann, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen,106;  from Moltmann’s classic Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (1981)

[10] John Mbiti, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 352.

[11] Matthew 10:38.

[12] St. Athanasius (c. 296-373), a bishop in Roman Egypt, was a key defender of Trinitarianism. Cited in in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 39.

[13] See my post, Kieslowski’s Decalogue: A Masterpiece of Religious Cinema (Jan. 28, 2017): https://jimfriedrich.com/2017/01/28/kieslowskis-decalogue-a-masterpiece-of-religious-cinema/

“The terrible work that gives life to the world”—A Good Friday sermon

Fra Angelico, The Mocking of Christ (1440)

In the convent of San Marco in Florence, Fra Angelico painted a fresco of the mocking of Christ. The cruelties of Christ’s tormenters are represented as fragments, floating in the space around the white-robed, blindfolded victim: a disembodied head spits at our Lord, a floating hand strikes him with a rod. These fragments are very flat, two-dimensional, as though pasted on the image’s surface. But Christ himself is not restricted to the plane of the image. It projects forward in an illusion of three-dimensionality, into the space occupied by two saints. The suffering Christ emerges from his own time into theirs. 

But neither saint is looking at him. They face away from the scene, toward us. The mocking is not something they look at with their physical eyes. It is for them an interior contemplation. And their devotion to the Passion takes two different forms. On the right, St. Dominic, the great intellect and preacher, is looking at a book, open in his lap. The Passion is something he is reading about, and processing in his mind. On the left side, the mother of Jesus, sitting in an attitude of quiet sorrow, has no book. She is apprehending the Passion through the medium of her heart. Dominic is thinking about the suffering of Christ. Mary is feeling it.

On God’s Friday we bring both head and heart to the foot of the cross. We may want to puzzle over the why of it: Why did this have to happen? Why do we keep returning to this bloody act? Why does it matter? Or maybe we just prefer to watch and weep over a mystery beyond all comprehension. 

In any case, here we are again, at the foot of the cross. A lot has happened since the last Good Friday—so much suffering, so much struggling, so much dying. We bring all that with us to the cross today, along with our questions, our wounds, our laments. Finding the right words for this strange time is a daunting task. 

Wiliam Sloane Coffin, one of the great Christian voices of the twentieth century, once told a young minister not to worry too much about his Holy Week sermon. “Anybody can preach on Good Friday,” he said. “Hell, read the newspaper!”[i]

On Good Friday, 2021, we don’t need a crucifix to remind us of a premature death which should never have happened. We’ve seen it replicated over half a million times in this country alone—worldwide, nearly 3 million times. 

We don’t need an ancient form of execution, designed to cause asphyxiation in a sagging body, to remind us of human cruelty. This very week, in a Minneapolis courtroom, a congregation of judge and jury is meditating on the last words—of George Floyd: “I can’t breathe.” 

We don’t have to go back 2000 years to learn the story of hatred, violence, and innocent victims. We’ve got Atlanta and Boulder and far too many other examples. 

As for the mindless mob shouting “Crucify! Crucify!” in Pilate’s courtyard, we’ve got our own version from January 6th, that epiphany of collective rage by the ones who “know not what they do.”  

Yes, we still see crucifixions every day. So why do we keep returning to Golgotha? How is the death of Jesus not like any other? In one sense, it is like every death. In choosing to embrace human experience, to live and die as one of us, the Divine identified completely with our suffering as well as our joy. 

Anglican poet Thomas Traherne expressed this truth with 17th-century fluency:

“O Christ, I see thy cross of thorns in every eye, thy bleeding naked wounded body in every soul, thy death lived in every memory. Thy crucified person is embalmed in every affliction, thy pierced feet are bathed in everyone’s tears ….” [ii]

Jesus is not only the icon of God but also the representative human, our “Everyman” and “Everywoman,” who bears our griefs and carries our sorrows. A folksong from back in the day said it this way:

If somehow you could pack up your sorrows, 
and give them all to me,
you would lose them, I know how to use them,
give them all to me.[iii]

Why did, and why does, Jesus want to carry the full weight of our human condition? Love. Love so amazing, so divine. God thirsts for us even more than we thirst for God. And as the incarnation of that love, as the divine thirst for communion in human form, Jesus was willing to drink the bitter as well as the sweet. 

Why on earth does God desire us so much? It’s not because we’re so easy to love—God knows we’re not. It’s because love is God’s nature, love is who God is. When the eternal self-offering, self-giving, that constitutes the Holy Trinity, got narrowed down into human shape, that loving nature came with it. Jesus loves me, this I know, because Jesus is love incarnate. It’s who Jesus is, and what Jesus does. 

And what happens to love in a world gone so wrong? It suffers. Love hurts. On Palm Sunday we sang about “love’s agony, love’s endeavor, love’s expense:”

Drained is love in making full, 
bound in setting others free;
poor in making many rich, 
weak in giving power to be. 

Therefore he who shows us God, 
helpless hangs upon the tree;
and the nails and crown of thorns 
tell of what God’s love must be.[iv]

Antonello da Messina, The Antwerp Crucifixion (1475)

Nobody wants to suffer, but it seems to be part of the deal. As Julian of Norwich said in the century of Europe’s most deadly plague:

If there be anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe from falling, I know nothing of it — for it was not shown me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again, we are always held close in one love.[v]

In early 19th century Kentucky, 3 women founded a religious community called the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross. They were dedicated, in their words, “to bring the healing spirit of God into our world.” One of their current sisters, Elaine Prevallet, has written some very helpful words about suffering:

Suffering is always about change — either something needs to change, or something is changing. And changing means letting go of the way things are, the way I know them, the way I have put and held my life together…The idol of control holds out to us the hope that suffering and death can be eliminated. ..That false hope, in turn, has the effect of setting suffering up as an enemy to be avoided at all costs. [But] if we are unwilling to suffer, we are unwilling to love.[vi]

Nobody gets off lightly on God’s Friday, not God, not the world, not us. But we get through, we all get through—it is the way, the only way in this mysterious universe of freedom and risk, dying and rising.

You can do several things with suffering. You can try to avoid it or at least repress your awareness of it. Some people make that their life’s work. But avoiding suffering means you avoid a lot of love and a lot of life. Jesus considered this strategy of avoidance, in the desert Temptation and in the agony of Gethsemane. But that “adamant young man”[vii] chose instead to embrace the consequences of his divine nature and his human vocation. 

Another way to deal with suffering is to struggle against its causes, to work for its elimination. As both healer and prophet, Jesus demonstrated this way, even onto death at the hands of the oppressive powers. But like the weeds among the wheat, violence and suffering remain a persistent part of the fabric of creation, despite our best efforts. We do what we can, but suffering remains.

And so we, with Jesus, come to the third way: to undergo suffering as a means, not an end. To see suffering not as life-threatening, but life-giving. Suffering, instead of thwarting God’s purposes, becomes part of the repertoire of salvation. God does not create suffering, but does deal creatively with it. Suffering becomes, in God’s hands, formative rather than destructive. The Passion is not a detour. It is the way. As a recent hymn puts it, God is “wiser than despair.” [viii]

I once read about a Quaker meeting held on Easter Day. The assembled Friends were speaking, as the Spirit moved them, about the Resurrection. Then one woman got up and said that her only son had been killed in a car crash some months before. A chord of shared grief was struck in every heart. We know about that, don’t we, here on Bainbridge Island, thinking about Hannah, Hazel and Marina.[ix] But then this sorrowing mother said, “My heart is broken, but it is broken open—this is my resurrection and my hope.” [x]

To speak of the way of the cross as the way of life is not to deny its pain or its horror—Jesus himself cried out in deep protest from the cross: Why? Why? And the way of the cross is more than a simple homily about building character or learning compassion or awakening our own vocations to relieve the world’s pain where we can. Those are all valuable outcomes of our suffering, but on this day, at the foot of this cross, we must say something deeper and more difficult to grasp.

For this dying man, this Jesus upon the cross, is not just one more victim ground up by the teeth of history. This Jesus “bears in His Heart all wounds”[xi] carries our griefs and our sorrows, carries them into the divine heart, into the deepest place of God.  Our pain has become God’s own pain, and however long we must dwell in that Pit where there seems to be suffering without end, God dwells there with us. The One who died abandoned and alone now keeps us company on our own crosses—for as long as it takes.

Jane Kenyon, the poet who died too young of leukemia, knew the truth of this: 

The God of curved space, the dry 
God, is not going to help us, but the son
whose blood spattered 
the hem of his mother’s robe.[xii]

God does not create suffering. But God is the place where all suffering comes to rest. “Give it to me, ” God says. “I can take it. I will transform it.” When our suffering becomes God’s suffering, something new happens. It is no longer the tomb of dead hopes. It is the place of new birth. 

How does this happen? How does God bring forth good from evil?
How does the cross of Christ make all our crosses into trees of life? 
How does God turn our abyss into a redemptive journey? 

We could discuss theologies of atonement and sacrifice, or reflect upon the spiritual and psychological and social implications of Christ’s death. But on this day, we don’t come to the cross for ideas. We come for love.

In Antonello da Messina’s Crucifixion we see, as in Fra Angelico’s Mocking, two witnesses in the foreground: Mary, the mother of Jesus, and John, the beloved disciple. John is gazing intently at his Crucified Lord, while Mary looks inward, to her pierced heart. For me this image expresses something written by a present-day friend of Jesus, Virginia Stem Owens:

“Good Friday is the day when you can do nothing. Bewailing and lamenting your manifold sins does not in itself make up for them. Scouring your soul in a frenzy of spring cleaning only sterilizes it; it does not give it life. On Good Friday, finally, we are all, mourners and mockers alike, reduced to the same impotence. Someone else is doing the terrible work that gives life to the world.” [xiii]

So here we are, at the foot of the cross on God’s Friday, while Jesus does the terrible work that gives life to the world. 

“Give me your pain,” Jesus says. “Give me your sorrow. I will make it the place where your healing begins. I work good in all things. That is my nature. There is nothing that I cannot make into the means of new life. 

“Suffering…fear…grief…illness…anger…depression…despair…abandonment….
whatever your burden, give it to me, join your pain to mine, and I promise you: You shall rise up with me. 

For there is only one death in the history of the world,
and I have made it mine. 
And there is only one life in God’s universe, 
and from now until forever it is yours. I give it to you. 

“Die with me today…rise with me tomorrow…It is accomplished.”


This sermon may be seen on video in the Liturgy for Good Friday at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church (Bainbridge Island, WA), available on YouTube starting at noon on Good Friday, 2021. The link is here.


[i] Personal reminiscence by Will Willimon, in “Stunned observers: A Conversation between Richard Lischer and Will Willimon, The Christian Century (March 24, 2021), 35.

[ii] Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations, i.86.

[iii] Richard Fariña and Paula Marden, “Pack up your sorrows” (1965). I heard Farina and his wife Mimi sing this in concert in my college years. They were local favorites, and I often played their songs on my campus radio show. A promising writer and novelist, Fariña died in a motorcycle accident a year after writing this song. He was 29. To hear the song: https://youtu.be/NHRNqjOcaMM

[iv] W. H. Vanstone, “Morning glory, starlit sky.” This powerful text is set to a beautiful tune, Bingham, by Dorothy Howell Sheets, in The Episcopal Hymnal 1982, #585.

[v] Julian of Norwich, Showings (the Long Text), 14th century.

[vi] Elaine Prevallet, Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life (“Letting Go,” Vol. 12, No. 2, March/April 1997), 14.

[vii] I love Dag Hammarskjöld’s use of adamant, a Greek word for a hard stone or diamond. This term for a resistant substance came to mean “invincible.” Jesus’ refusal to let his love be misshapen by the world makes this an apt adjective for him. I found Hammarskjöld’s phrase in Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003), 163.

[viii] Brian Wren, “Bring many names” (1989): “calmly piercing evil’s new disguises, glad of good surprises, wiser than despair.”

[ix] The tragic death of these three teenagers in an automobile accident last month has deeply shaken my local community. 

[x] Weavings, “Letting Go.” Page unknown. 

[xi] The line is from Edith Sitwell’s poem, “Still Falls the Rain.” Written during the bombing of London in 1940, it does not single out the enemy, but laments the collective guilt of a warring humankind. The last lines: “Then sounds the voice of One who like the heart of man / Was once a child who among beasts has lain—/ ‘Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood, for thee.’

[xii] Jane Kenyon, “Looking at Stars.”

[xiii] Virginia Stem Owens, cited in “It Is Done,” a reflection on the Passion by Watchman Nee in Bread and Wine, p. 244. Nee (1903-1972) was a Chinese Christian who spent his final 20 years imprisoned for his faith. 

“Hopes that pointed to the clouds” — A Sermon for Advent 1

Dawn at the church in Rabanal on the Camino de Santiago (May 2, 2014).

This is a sermon I preached for the First Sunday of Advent, 2020, in the streamed liturgy at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church on Bainbridge Island, Washington. Below the video recording you will find the text with footnotes. Two corrections to the recording: Wordsworth’s account of crossing the Alps is in Book VI of The Prelude, and his celebrated line is: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.” That’s exactly how I felt when I took the top photograph on my pilgrimage walk to Santiago, so I doubly regret the error in the recording!

The liturgical year is like a great story with many chapters, and every Advent we go back to the beginning and tell it all over again. But it’s an unusual story. It doesn’t begin with “Once upon a time …” No, it begins with “The End.” Whether the gospel for the First Sunday in Advent is from Matthew, Mark, or Luke, we always get the apocalyptic Jesus announcing the end of the world. The sun and moon will go dark, the stars will fall from the sky, reality itself will tremble and shake. 

It’s the ultimate disaster movie, and we usually absorb it as such. The apocalyptic images of destruction and chaos engage our fears while they’re up on the screen (or on the lips of the gospel reader), but when the lights come up and we head for the exit, we expect to find the same old safe and reliable world waiting for us outside the theater or the church. But in 2020, not so much!

The ending of worlds is far too real this year. COVID-19 has made us acutely conscious of our own impermanence, not only as individuals but as a species. Millions have seen their jobs disappear, education is in crisis, social gatherings are nearly extinct, and so many ordinary things, from restaurants to haircuts, not to mention liturgical assemblies, have vanished from daily experience. We’ve been shocked this year to discover how easily the stability of our democratic institutions can be assaulted and eroded, and we’ve been disheartened and unsettled by the fragility of our social bonds in the face of so much hatred, bigotry, demagoguery and violence. Truth itself has become an endangered species. And if all that isn’t enough, the climate apocalypse is well underway. 

“Signs of ending all around us,” says one of our Advent hymns. Then it wonders:

Can it be that from our endings, new beginnings you create?
Life from death, and from our rendings, realms of wholeness generate?[i]

How will the world end? Let me count the ways, says the apocalyptic Jesus. But Jesus isn’t trying to depress us. Jesus doesn’t want to paralyze us with despair. But he does want us to be clear about where our treasure is, where our hope lies. Put your faith in the things that endure, he says. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”[ii]

I think what he’s getting at here is that our idolatries, our invented securities, will come to nothing in the long run. Only God endures. Only God’s Kingdom—the world of God—is built to last. So learn how to discern what lasts and what doesn’t, and how to remain faithful to the vision without getting discouraged by the obstacles and failures along the way.

A common misconception about the apocalypse is that it only comes once, at the end of history, when the broken will be made whole, all discords harmonized, all divisions reconciled. Christian faith indeed affirms that great vision of a perfected humanity and a restored creation. But our faith also calls us to make that future present wherever and whenever we can, and to notice how it’s already happening around us. At the same time, we need to recognize the ambiguities of historical existence. God and not-God are like the wheat and the weeds—hard to tell apart until the final harvest. Stay awake, Jesus says. Pay attention. Sometimes the Kingdom is where you least expect it. Sometimes it doesn’t look like anything you expected. And often it will come and go in the blink of an eye. Keep your eyes open!

Why must there be apocalypse? Why must so many things come to an end? In order for God’s future to take place now, some of what is present needs to get out of the way to make room for the new thing God wants to happen. That’s why we should speak about the end of the world not as a single, far-off event, but as the ending of worlds plural: the ending of all those things which need to pass away so we can get right with God. 

An economy where millions lose their jobs and millions go hungry while the assets of 600 billionaires increase by 1 trillion dollars during the pandemic—that’s got to go. The killing of people because they’re black—that’s got to go. The destruction of nature by greed and stupidity—that’s got to go. You get the idea. God wants a better world, and God asks us not only to pray for that world but to work for it, and, by God’s grace, to embody it and manifest it whenever and however we can. 

But for reasons we are not given to understand as finite beings, the inbreaking of the Kingdom isn’t a story of steady and relentless progress. We are indeed visionary creatures, full of desire for better selves and better worlds, but we are also finite and fallible, complicated mixtures of mud and spirit. We have our limits. We don’t always know the right thing, or when we think we know, we don’t do it, or can’t do it. Or by the time we do, maybe it’s no longer the right thing. 

Good motives tend to produce mixed outcomes. And as for bad things, Scripture tells us that a creative God can make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Historical existence is complicated. It’s messy. A lot of the time we’re just guessing. We have to learn not to fall in love with outcomes, or get too attached to our ideas of the best future. Our God is a God of surprises, and most of our maps to the Promised Land turn out to be illusions, or at least out of date. 

In the late 18th century, the French Revolution stirred the imagination of Europe with a sense of immense possibility. Looking back on 1789 twenty-five years later, French observer Thomas Noon Talfourd described the incredible excitement in the air:

“Every faculty of the mind was awakened,” he said, “every feeling raised to an intenseness of interest, every principle and passion called into superhuman exertions. At one moment, all was hope and joy and rapture; the corruption and iniquity of ages seemed to vanish like a dream; the unclouded heavens seemed once more to ring with the exulting chorus of peace on earth and good-will to men … The most brilliant hopes were cherished … and fresh prospects were daily opening which … filled us with painful delight and with giddy rapture.”[iii]

G.W.F. Hegel, the great German idealist, was 19 years old when that revolution happened. “It was a glorious dawn,” he recalled later. “All thinking beings shared in the jubilation of the epoch. A sublime emotion ruled that age, and enthusiasm of the spirit thrilled through the world, as though the time were now come of the actual reconciliation of God with the world.”[iv]

When the English poet William Wordsworth was a young man, he went to France to begin a walking tour in the summer of 1790, when revolutionary spirits were still high. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” he wrote, “France standing on the top of golden hours, / And human nature seeming born again.”[v]

Those among us who came of age in the 1960s may remember the same exhilaration of being young and idealistic in a time of great upheaval and daring dreams. We had our “brilliant hopes” and “sublime emotion,” our visions of a new world emerging from the ruins of the old. 

But we would soon discover that a reborn humanity, reconciled to the purposes of God, was not so easily achieved. So too did the young Wordsworth grow disenchanted with the French Revolution’s dark side. The Kingdom of God may work through the movements of history, but it is not identical with them. To confuse God and history is idolatry. Misplaced hope is worship of the wrong thing.

Fifteen years after his tour of revolutionary France, Wordsworth wrote his epic poem, The Prelude, a spiritual biography of his generation of Romantics and idealists. In Book VI of The Prelude, he explored his personal struggle with hope and disillusionment through the narrative of his excursion through France to the Alps. Making his way south, he feasted and danced with happy revolutionaries, tasting the bliss of their new world. As he put it, he “found benevolence and blessedness / Spread like a fragrance everywhere, like Spring.”[vi]

But when he reached the Alps, he saw a troop of French soldiers plunder a peaceful mountain convent in the name of revolution and freedom from the oppression of religion. Actually, this desecration occurred two years later. But Wordsworth inserts it into his poem to dramatize with this single illustration his more gradual internal process of disappointment with the Revolution’s betrayal of his generation’s hopes.

In the poem, Wordsworth is shocked to witness the soldiers’ destruction of the convent and the expulsion of its “blameless inmates.” The revolutionary sword wields no justice in this act, only negation. The convent, a precious habitation of calm and spirit, set apart to remember eternity, perishes in a world gone mad.

As a disillusioned Wordsworth climbed higher in the Alps, he struggled with despair. He felt “inwardly oppress’d” by an “utter loss of hope itself, / And things to hope for.”[vii] (A loss of “things to hope for.” That is so 2020!) With the Revolution descending into the maelstrom of violence and naked power, where could he look for the true apocalypse that would break the power of the fallen world, renovate humanity, and restore the earthly paradise? 

The climb itself began to form an answer in his heart and mind. “For still,” he tells us, “[he] had hopes that pointed to the clouds.”[viii] He was a Romantic, after all, fluent in the language of Nature. The soaring peak of Mont Blanc, rising into the sky above, was an icon of Transcendent power far greater than revolutions or armies—or the countless dejections of history.  

We can imagine the music swelling here, as the poet approaches the summit to receive the grace of divine vision, reconciling in a flash all the contradictions of human existence. What actually happened was, Wordsworth got lost in the mist. Eventually, he ran into a peasant who told him that he’d already crested the pass and was in fact now going down other side. Though the poet’s hopes may have still pointed to the clouds, his body was on its way back to the complications of the world below. 

Wordsworth would find in this experience a metaphor for the life of faith. We don’t get the decisive apocalypse, the ultimate finale, in this life. God is too inventive to settle for our flawed approximations of a better world. There’s always going to be a mixture of good and ill, darkness and light, in our historical projects, as well as in the circuitous journey of every soul. Still, God has planted hope and desire deep in our hearts, and amid all the complications and setbacks of the human journey, we keep reaching for the clouds, and that in itself is something glorious. As Wordsworth put it:

And now, recovering, to my soul I say 
‘I recognize thy glory.’
… Our destiny, our nature, and our home
Is with infinitude, and only there;
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be.[ix]

150 years after Wordsworth crossed the Alps, another poet, W. H. Auden, articulated his own understanding of the dance between disappointment and hope. As a political idealist in the 1930s, he would face his own disillusionment at the end of that decade. Revolutionary hopes for a better world had withered, and humanity, as far from the earthly paradise as it had ever been, was plunging into the inferno of the Second World War.

We hoped, we waited for the day
The State would wither clean away,
Expecting the Millennium
That theory promised us would come,
It didn’t.

Like Wordsworth—and all of us at the end of 2020—Auden was forced to accept the limits of historical existence, and to discern, as he put it, “what / Is possible and what is not, / To what conditions we must bow / In building the Just City now.”  

And like Wordsworth, Auden finds himself on a mountain: Dante’s Mount Purgatory, where the Earthly Paradise at the top is a distant goal, for which there are no shortcuts. 

The purgatorial hill we climb,
Where any skyline we attain
Reveals a higher ridge again.
Yet since, however much we grumble,
However painfully we stumble,
Such mountaineering all the same
Is, it would seem, the only game …

We have no cause to look dejected
When, wakened from a dream of glory,
We find ourselves in Purgatory,
Back on the same old mountain side
With only guessing for a guide …

O once again let us set out,
Our faith well balanced by our doubt,
Admitting that every step we take
Will certainly be a mistake,
But still believing we can climb
A little higher every time …[x]

We’re all on that mountain with the poet, still climbing, sheltering our hope like a candle in the winds of doubt, stumbling our way onward. Sometimes we lose the path, and go astray. And if we do attain a summit, a higher one still looms before us.

And all those apocalypses along the way, all those endings great and small, the vanishings of good things and bad things alike, turn out not to be last judgments or final judgments, bringing our story to a close. They are more like doors, where we pass from a tired world into a new reality.

As long as we are creatures of time and history, that reality will never be fixed or final. And with a God who is utterly free and endlessly inventive, who can describe what is to come? But if I may switch metaphors and poets, let me give you one of my favorite Advent images.

In her poem, “Rowing,” Anne Sexton imagines herself rowing toward an island called God. 

I am rowing, I am rowing,
though the wind pushes me back
and I know that that island will not be perfect,
it will have the flaws of life,
the absurdities of the dinner table,
but there will be a door
and I will open it
and I will get rid of the rat inside me,
the gnawing pestilential rat.
God will take it with his two hands
and embrace it.

Sexton knows she’s not there yet, she is still in the Advent space of waiting and hoping. And, like Auden, she is aware of what is possible and what is not, and to what conditions she must bow as a flawed and finite being in search of Grace.

“This story,” she says, “ends with me still rowing.”[xi]

This, dear people of God, is where we begin the Advent journey. On the sea of faith, still rowing. Or maybe back on the same old mountain side, with only guessing for a guide. But always holding fast to hope that can never die, as we wait and watch for “something evermore about to be.”

“This story ends with me still rowing.”




[i] Dean W. Nelson,“Signs of endings all around us,” # 721 in Wonder, Love, and Praise: A Supplement to The Hymnal 1982 (New York: The Church Pension Fund).

[ii] The Gospel for Advent 1 (Year B) is Mark 13:24-37.

[iii] Thomas Noon Talfourd, The Poetical Talent of the Present Age, 1815), cited in M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1971), 329-330.

[iv] In Abrams, 352.

[v] William Wordsworth, The Prelude: 1799, 1805, 1850, eds. Jonathsn Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, Stephen Gill (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979), X, 692 (1805), VI, 353-4 (1805). All citations from The Prelude are from this Norton Critical Edition.

[vi] The Prelude, VI, 368-369 (1805).

[vii] The Prelude, XI, 506 (1805).

[viii] The Prelude, VI, 587 (1850).

[ix] The Prelude, VI, 531-532, 538-542 (1805).

[x] W. H. Auden, “New Year Letter (January 1, 1940),” Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976). We hoped (175); what is possible (190); the purgatorial hill (178-179).

[xi] Anne Sexton, “Rowing,” in The Awful Rowing Toward God (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1975). This is the first poem in the book. In the last, “The Rowing Endeth,” she finally reaches the island. God invites her to play poker. They both win, because that’s how it goes with God. The text of “Rowing is here: https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/rowing/ … “The Rowing Endeth” is here: https://opreach.org/2013/02/26/the-rowing-endeth/

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.