Thursday, May 21, 2009

Risen, Ascended, Glorified

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.

Colossians 3:1

“He has raised our human nature in the clouds to God’s right hand;

There we sit in heavenly places, there with Him in glory stand:

Jesus reigns, adored by angels; man with God is on the throne;

Mighty Lord, in Thine ascension we by faith behold our own.”

- Bishop Christopher Wordsworth, 1807-1885 

The Ascension of Christ is difficult for modern people much more because of what it says about humanity than for any perceived defect in its cosmogony. The message of this Principal Feast is simply too great, too noble for our diminished vision of the human being. The Ascension boldly asserts that through Christ the human person already partakes in the spiritual gifts of and communion with God the Father. When Christ rises triumphantly into the heavens 40 days after his Resurrection, he is not demonstrating his power through a proof like “levitation,” nor is his rising  merely a mechanical "event" like sending up a kind of spiritual rocket to God the Father. It is a mystery, a witness to something profoundly true: he is drawing all of redeemed humanity into the presence and power of God, where it belongs.

How reduced, how stunted is the secular vision of humanity! Attempting to satisfy spiritual beings with material things, or giving out data or propaganda or advertising as a substitute for wisdom, we gradually learn to lower our expectations of being human. We say “I’m only human” as if it were a rather embarrassing excuse, not a confession of a miraculous gift. Instead of seeing the human person as Christ sees it – full of divine potential for holy love because Christ has raised it with him – we see the “un-ascended human” as the norm. We miss the glorious truth because it exceeds our expectations.

Many churches today have no celebration of the Ascension, or perhaps move it to some convenient mid-week said service. Many homilists today spend more time trying to "debunk" or "justify" the Ascension than entering into its meaning. This is further evidence of our diminished vision, our forgetting the gift we have already received in Christ. Bishop Wordsworth’s hymn recalls us to the truth: We are more than we know; we were created for Glory. Our destiny is restored now by being raised to the Right Hand of God in Christ. This is what it means to be “only human” for the Christian: a completely transformed personhood, “seeking the things that are above,” where Christ and our restored humanity already are. We experience a foretaste of it in every Holy Eucharist. We who know the Ascended Christ can be satisfied with nothing less.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Rogationtide: Not Guilt but Grace and Gratitude

The ancient tradition of observing Rogationtide during the 6th week of Easter has undergone some real changes and challenges in recent decades.

- Few people live on farms or make their living from the land today; this is exactly opposite of the world as it was for millennia.

- Because of technology, many people take for granted that there will be enough food each year (the last nature-induced famine in the Western European and North American world was in the early 19th century, due to a volcanic eruption in modern-day Indonesia – that’s a long time ago!)

- The Prayer Book has gradually lowered the visibility of this observance, until the current situation when the Eucharistic lessons for Rogation Sunday in the new (RCL) lectionary have little discernable connection with the Creation or God’s protective work in our lives.

- The modern ecological and environmental movement has largely secular roots, and its main observance (“Earth Day”) has no connection to the Church Calendar, leaving Rogation Sunday to die or become merely a quaint tradition, rather than the profound observance it really is.

            As an increasingly urban and suburban culture, the agricultural roots of these Holy Days can seem irrelevant to us. Yet, we still rely on the earth for all our material sustenance. We who live in a consumerized, technological, and largely individualist society need to bear this in mind.

            The secular focus on environmentalism, however, has often had a tendency to focus on the damage we have done to the Creation. That record of pollution and profound misuse of the Creation is open for all to see, and is indeed a shameful (and ongoing) chapter of human sin, which always results in the abuse of the neighbor, the Creation, or the self due to alienation from God.

            However, the secular world’s remorse for pollution often seems to get stuck in guilt, anger, retribution, regulation, and romanticized concepts of nature. Indeed, it frequently amuses me to see how secularists (or secularized Christians), who often cannot bear the least reference to sin when applied to actions in their much-protected “private” life, become persecuting neo-Calvinists when they spot “public” wrongs connected with the environment. Not so the Church’s ancient (and gradually revived) teaching on the subject.

            The New Testament makes no distinction between “private” and “public” sin. The wrong done in corrupt personal dealings is the same as the wrong done by polluting the environment. Both dishonor the created person or order AND dishonor the God who created all things in perfect love.

            The assumption made by the Scriptures and by the Christian Church until its infection by secular ideas in the 17th century is that we are stewards, not owners, of the created order. We are judged in part on how we relate to the Creation. If we see it as mere “material” to be “used” rather than a gift to be offered, we re-enact the sin of Adam and Eve, who “used” the “material” of the world in a way they saw fit, for their own gratification, rather than in a priestly relationship of gratitude and offering to the God who ordered all things for their benefit. So, there is an absolute requirement for repentance of sin against God in the misuse of the Creation (a much better word for us to use than “environment” in this context); but, the solution to the wrong comes not in guilt or in concocting a na├»ve notion of the past or a new Pharisaism in the present (where each action is obsessively measured for its moral consequences, with personal self-justification the unstated goal).

            Rather, the Christian looks to Christ, who in His words to the Disciples and the High Priestly prayer in John (Chaps. 13-17) commends all to the will and purpose of the Father. He restores the right relationship between God and world, and directs us to share in His priestly ministry as stewards of the Mysteries of God – which includes the present Creation while we are part of it. This is one aspect of what it means when Christ tells us to “bear fruit” as His disciples.

            As we come to Rogationtide at St. Timothy’s, we will offer some of the traditional aspects of the observance. After the main liturgy, we plan to process around the parish grounds while offering the Great Litany. In so doing, we confess our absolute dependence on God for our life. To this purpose special petitions for this day are added:

For favorable weather, temperate rains, and fruitful seasons, that there may be food and drink for all your creatures, we pray to you, O Lord. Lord, have mercy.

For your blessing upon the lands and waters, and all who work upon them to bring forth food and all things needful for your people, we pray to you, O Lord. Lord, have mercy.

For all who care for the earth, the water, and the air, that the riches of your creation may abound from age to age, we pray to you, O Lord.  Lord, have mercy.

            As in the past, additional prayers for good stewardship of the earth and human industry will be offered. We will also bless and distribute Rogation Crosses to be taken by parishioners and placed in their own gardens, farms, and plantings as a visible reminder of God’s blessing in the gift of life, growth, and protection of our fragile existence.

            However, this year there will be an important difference. We plan to ask God’s blessing on the new Community Garden hosted by St. Timothy’s. This is an important undertaking blending mission to the community, care of the neighbor, right use of the Creation, and the basic assumptions of stewardship in our Faith. It is a first step in our common life towards a renewed understanding of our priestly purpose with regard to the world around us. God willing, it will call us to be creative, generous stewards of all the relationships in our life. After all, how we treat the things of this world largely foretells how we treat the people in it. All of this will be a blessing, indeed. And that is something to be understood and lived with Christian intentionality. It is a gift of clarity and peace we bear from God, to be shared with everyone we serve in God’s Name.

            Rather than being imprisoned by the paralyzing guilt of a fallen and combative world, may this Rogationtide find us growing into the liberating, thankful joy of the renewed Creation made known in Christ! 

Learning to Love Again

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

The Great 50 Days of Easter are framed as it were by two lessons about love.

On the night before his death, Christ said to his disciples that they must love one another as he has loved them (John 13:34). This love, a giving of self for the other, sets the standard for the Christian life. It presents an unmistakable context for the Christian: to love as he loved, living free to serve, secure in the Father’s love which alone is freedom in its fullness.

Weeks later, after the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples by a lake (John 21). The disciples had tried to return to their old lives, but this is never truly possible for one touched by Christ. At that lakeside, Christ Jesus asked Peter: “Do you love me?” In order to heal the rift and failing of Peter’s thrice-denial, the Lord asks him twice more: “Do you love me?” It is almost as if Christ says: “It is not enough to sit with me, to eat with me as one of my friends; you must learn again to love in its fullest sense, only then will you ever be able to “feed my sheep” and bear my message to this lovelorn and love-thirsty world aright.” What was true for St. Peter is true also for us.

The Great 50 Days of Eastertide is not a “project,” at the end of which we have some sort of “product” we can measure or present to God for approval or validation. It is a season when the meaning of the Resurrection is gradually absorbed. Jesus bids the disciples then and now to live and love beyond the rigid confines of Time and Death. Christ has loved us to the last, full measure in the events of Holy Week. In His resurrection – which we share through our baptism into Him – Christ Jesus shows us reality is so much greater than our limited, earthbound vision typically allows. He now looks at us in the midst of our many denials of Him as disciples and inquires: “Do you love me?” We are called to ponder what this means. Do we choose to operate out of our limitations, or out of His example of a free and fearless love?

At the end of Eastertide, the promised gift of the Holy Spirit is delivered to the infant Church at Pentecost. Only this gift makes it possible to live out our commission, our call to “love as He loves us.” Yet, that giving of the Holy Spirit is only for those who would receive Christ as their Lord and Savior, desiring to live His love, to become like Him as a way of life. Christ’s question to St. Peter continues to be our question.

The modern parish Church has often been reduced to a social club, a political action organization, or a museum of some romanticized and concocted history. None of these is either accurate or sufficient. The parish is the appointed place where a Christian people gather to hear the Gospel of Divine Love proclaimed, participate in the enactment of that Kingdom of Love and Knowledge through the Holy Liturgy, and are sent forth as changed people to embody that Love. The parish is, at heart, where humans learn to love again. Only when this is the “mission above all other missions” will the Church become its true self, fulfilling the Resurrection’s promise and our Lord’s desire.