Published on 22 May 2012
The Seventh Sunday of Easter
May 20, 2012
Christ Church Cathedral
Click Here to listen to an audio MP3 of the sermon
Our first reading this morning is from the first Chapter of The Acts of the Apostles. It recounts the story of the Ascension. The Ascension is a very important and largely misunderstand story.
But to begin, let’s backup a bit and set some context. The church’s calendar can be thought of having two halves. I’ll not very creatively call them Part I and Part II.
Part I covers the work of Jesus Christ. Part I begins in Advent with the annunciation of the coming birth of Christ, the Light of God. Then we move to Christmas and the birth of God’s Light in human flesh. From there to Epiphany where the Light of Christ reveals itself to the world, through Lent where the Light is tested in its mission, leading to the final work of the Passion in Holy Week – The Anointing by the unnamed woman, The Last Supper, Good Friday, The Empty Tomb and Descent into Hell, and then the Resurrection. From the Resurrection begins the Season of Easter. This is the season we are in now. 40 Days after Easter is The Ascension, the point at which The Resurrected Christ disappears.
Part II, the second half of the Liturgical year begins next Sunday with The Feast of Pentecost, the Descent of the Holy Spirit. Part I of the Liturgical Year covers the work and mission of Christ. Part II covers the work of The Holy Spirit. So from next Sunday (Pentecost) until the end of November, we will be in the church’s inquiry into the work of the Spirit.
As one of the great early theologians said, God the Father (or God the Source) has two hands with which to embrace creation: Christ and The Holy Spirit. The church’s calendar recalls these two hands of God – the first half of the liturgical year is an examination of Christ and the second half The Holy Spirit.
The flow is designed so that by contemplating Christ, Christ comes to dwell within us and then we live by the Spirit Christ sent.
The Ascension marks the transition between the two halves in the church’s calendar: it is the ending of the first half, opening the space for the second half.
The Ascension speaks about the completion of the work of Christ Jesus. A neglect of The Ascension therefore is a neglect of the nature and work of Christ–whom the Christian tradition holds to be our way of seeing into the face of The Creator.
Now undoubtedly one of the biggest obstacles to connecting to the teaching of The Ascension comes from the ancient cosmology inherent in the story – one we no longer hold. Heaven is thought to be up above our world and therefore Jesus “ascends” up and out of Creation through the skies. The large window behind me in the Chancel depicts this visually. What I like to call, Jesus hits the Going Up Button on the Divine Elevator.
Even if one does not take the directionality too literally, there is still the potential problem that the symbol could be interpreted to mean that the spiritual life is about getting out of the world as we see in the so-called Rapture traditions. Escaping from life, escaping from pain, death, struggle, and the complexity of it all.
And yet I think this feast is crucially important. So let’s see if we can find another way to get to the heart of what we are celebrating today, something that will speak to us.
The great Jesuit theologian Teilhard de Chardin said that in the Ascension Christ had gone within everything. Christ is within or intimate to all reality. The Resurrected Christ, disappears Teilhard said, not up into some other worldly heaven but into everything. Into the heart of matter, of emotion, of thought, of relationship, of sensation, of touch, of breath, the trees, the wind, into all sentient beings.
That is where we need to go meet Christ.
The traditional image of the Ascension does get one thing right: a disappearance of the forms and the images we are used to. In the Ascension, the Resurrected Christ disappears. What this means is that even the most exalted images of divinity eventually have to pass away into emptiness.
We are bombarded by images, text messages, words, words, and more words. We come to worship and it can sometimes be just more words, words, hymns, prayers, words, and so on. There’s need to be this space for the emptiness, for the silence.
For no images. No words. If only for a brief period of time.
But what the Ascension teaches is that this emptiness is not nothingness. It is paradoxically fullness – for Christ is within, fully intimate to, all reality. Words can now return creatively, in a fresh manner.
If we open into the emptiness, into the space where Christ has disappeared, then we are free to really enter fully into the intimacy of life. Into the holy desires, the pains, the sorrows, the joys, the hopes, the visions, the normality, the banal. All of it.
In verses 10 and 11 it states, “While Christ was going and the disciples were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
This to me is a great spiritual question for our age. Why do we stand here and keep looking up towards heaven? What do we expect is going to happen? My hunch is that even if mentally and formally we state that we don’t believe in some version of this up in the clouds/pie in the sky version of the Deity, I think a big part of us, if unconsciously, is still pretty invested in that model, especially for many on an emotional level.
The vision of a disappearing, a dissolving Resurrected Christ offers us an entrance into the Pure Mystery. No looking up towards heaven but rather experiencing the current of Heaven now.
And then as Teilhard said, we can become one with Christ in the intimacy with all beings, with the whole process of Life.
The silence frees up the space for intimacy. The Ascended Christ is intimate, within all reality.
Verse 12 states, “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet.”
It’s time to get off the mountain. Time to go back to the marketplace, to the city, to our communities. This is where spirituality will either be enacted or not. Where if it is, it will actually have relevance.
It is often said–with truth–that our society is far too materialistic, too built around consumption. But in another way, I would say our society is not nearly materialistic enough. The materialism of our day is usually prefabricated, material-ish stuff. It’s not true matter, materia–from the root same root as mother (mater).
And we are distracted rather than being consumed. We should be consumed by God, by the kingdom.
When we enter into the silence we are then freed to enter into the beating heart of Life. We become, like the Ascended Christ, we become both empty and intimate with all. And as that process matures, we may begin to experience a pull, a holy desire, an urging, or longing, an impulse, a Divine tug. It will be about our calling, our gift we are to give, our participation, our part to play in the Divine-Human-Creational Drama. It’s our role to play in the Great Story. And that begins to consume us.
That fire that burns within us is the Holy Spirit. As I said, The Descent of the Holy Spirit in Pentecost follows logically right after the Ascension. We have to first be emptied. We then enter fully and become intimate with Life. This is the path of the Ascension. We fully enter into our world and then we are prepared for the Fiery Descent of the Holy Spirit in Pentecost.
But you have to come back next week for that one. Amen.
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