12 May 2013

Thinking Through the Ascension

Below is my homily for the Ascension, but first, a word: it is perhaps obvious to say, but a sermon which meditates on the ineffable quality of the Ascension is, itself, hard to put into words. "Beloved people of God, we cannot explain this. So let me now explain how we can't explain." Sunday comes too soon.


Grace to you, and Peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, the Risen and Ascended One. Alleluia and amen.

Last summer, while I was working in the Smoky Mountains, I spent the night on top of Mt. LeConte. It's the third highest peak in the national park and a difficult, steep five miles to the summit. Once up there, I had an amazing view of the surrounding mountains and breath-taking places from which to watch the sunset and sunrise. While watching the sunset from a hidden ledge that only a few people (including my guide) knew about, I was excited to get back down the mountain and record the experience in my journal. The more I tried to write, though, the more I found my words failing me. I don't have the vocabulary to fully express the majesty of what that sunset. The way the sun hovered at the horizon, catching the clouds around it on fire, and the sky's slow fade from blue to the deepest purple, will forever be indescribable.

Comprehending the major Christian feast days is eerily similar. Words fail to do full justice to what is happening. Sure, we can understand birth and death. Christmas and Good Friday make sense. Easter? Well, we can sort of cognitively grasp what's happening. A heart can stop and then start again. We know that these are only partial understandings, but at least we have a starting point, right? Theology can take root in biology, at least in our minds. Much like the majesty of sunsets and mountains, we have scientific language available. I know that the sunset on Mt. LeConte was a function of slow geological movement, atmospheric distortion of light, and the rotation of the earth. All of this is true, but it fails to account for the full, sublime beauty of these events.

Just so, we miss the point when we limit our understanding of theology to that which can be understood scientifically. Christmas is about the full incarnation of God as Man, not reproductive health. Good Friday is about God's self-sacrifice, not just the cessation of biological function. Easter is about so much more than a heart beating again. This season isn't about divine defibrilation but an entirely new way of being alive, a new way of being, and a new creation.

And then we get to the mystical feasts. If we have trouble with understanding the more common place events in the life of Christ, how much more confused are we by those unique events which fall completely outside of human experience? We become even more lost. We lack a point of comparison. The Transfiguration, Ascension and Pentecost? Not even the most theoretical of physicist can provide insight into those.

No, we need a poet, not a scientist.

Instead,we end up with an idea of these great feasts that is overly reductionistic. We try to make sense of that which is wholly other. The Ascension becomes little more than Christ flying around like Superman. And then we really start to think about it. So, he ascended...to where? How exactly does one get to heaven? Second star on the right, straight on till morning? No, that's Neverland. Where's Jesus? Where's Heaven?

This question never really bothered me until I tried to think about it. Jesus is at the right hand of the Father. Ok, cool. But...then I tried to put the Ascension into words. How did he get there? He ascended and, what, just kept going up? How far “up” does one have to go to get to the Kingdom of Heaven?

In The Truman Show, Jim Carry's character sets sail on a local body of water and eventually tears a whole in the fabric of his small little world. While the metaphor is certainly an apt way of thinking about Christ's life, and the image of tearing the fabric of this world is a beautiful expression of divine revelation, that's not what happens during the Ascension. What we read in today's Gospel was not Jesus going up and up and up until he burst out the side of the universe. We can't reduce the Ascension to such a literal interpretation.

These questions used to have answers. In the ancient way of understanding the cosmos, Heaven had a very definite physical location in space. The Ptolemaic cosmologists had an answer for this. Heaven is the outer-most sphere, just past the seven planets. It was obtainable in a physical way. But, from where I sit, as the first human-made objects leave the outermost parts of the solar system, they haven't hit any angels yet. Such a blunt view of heaven doesn't work well with how we think about the universe and our place in it. We can't reduce the Ascension to archaic astrophysics.

Where does this leave us? Did Jesus go up to space and disappear into another realm? No, we can't reduce the Ascension to divine teleportation.

Instead, we are forced to face a discomforting truth: we don't understand. We can't understand. It is too far afield from anything we have ever known. We think of theology as “faith seeking understanding,” but we fall short. There is nearly 2,000 years of theological tradition urging us to make sense out of what we believe, but we simply can't. We don't have the vocabulary to fully express the majesty of the Ascension. Instead, we should look east and turn to our Orthodox brothers and sisters. Orthodox theology offers a much-needed break from the over-bearing scholastic bent of theology; it invites the Church to dwell on the mysteries of the faith, to enjoy the unknown, and to celebrate the unknowable.

In rejoicing in the mystery, we can turn then to the altar with confidence. We can give thanks for God's own gifts of bread and wine and trust that the Risen and Ascended Christ is truly present in this sacred meal. Even though He is seated at the right hand of the Father, Christ is in the Holy Eucharist – in a very real way. And when we offer theses gifts back to God, we too are lifted up. In Christ's Ascension, we see the fulfillment of Creation being joined to the Kingdom of God. A human enters eternity, just God entered time. Just so, when we celebrate the Eucharist, we are, in some very small way, joined to eternity. Heaven and earth unite. Our prayer joins with the Christians who came before us and those who will come after us. The Church – past, present, and future, here in Decatur and all across the world, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, on earth and in heaven, wherever that may be, the whole Church – ascends to the Kingdom of God. Just for a moment. Christ becomes present in midst of the Church. Heaven becomes present on Earth. The Church becomes present in the midst of the Triune God. It's a mystery.
Thanks be to God.

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