Friday, May 6, 2005

Ascension Day — 5 May 2005
Trinity, Iowa City — 7:00 pm

Acts 1:1-11 Psalm 47 or 93 Ephesians 1:15-23 Luke 24:44-53

"After his glorious resurrection he openly appeared to his disciples, and in their sight ascended into heaven, to prepare a place for us; that where he is, there we might also be, and reign with him in glory."

By special request of the Art Institute of Chicago, a return exhibition of the famous renaissance masterpiece, "L’ascensione di Christo," attributed to Fra Gulielmo il Insensato, known as the Maestro delle Punte. (The special request of the Art Institute was that this exhibition not be held in Chicago…)

(Those of you who haven’t been around Trinity for more than a few years are doubtless saying to yourselves, "What is he doing?" Those of you who have been around for a while are doubtless saying, "Did he just drag out that stupid ‘Toes’ picture again?")

Well, enough. At least for this year.

Sometimes the way the Church talks about the Ascension of Christ is criticized as reflecting a "three-story universe" — heaven up there, hell down there, earth here in the middle — and Jesus going up doo-doo-doo from the second story to the third story — a picture that modern people simply don’t and can’t believe in. Well of course we don’t see the world that way. Frankly, I’m not all that sure that ancient people took the "three-story universe" all that literally, either (although if you don’t have telescopes it actually makes pretty good sense). On the other hand, there are a lot of modern people who wouldn’t recognize a metaphor if it bit them on the toe. (So to speak!) (And as for irony, absolutely not a clue!) Our generation seems to have a terribly literalist mindset — a fruit of the scientific age, perhaps, but not to be blamed on science but on the bad teaching of science. (Hard science itself is perfectly at home with metaphor and irony. Just ask a physicist about the charm quark.)

Okay, why am I beating on this probably long-dead horse of literalism? Because I think the Ascension of Christ, and our own ultimate destiny to be with Christ where he is, presents us with the chronic tension in Christian thought and life between the transcendent and the here and now. Christianity in the past and yet in the present has often been so heavenly-minded that it’s been no earthly good; pie in the sky when you die by and by; the opiate of the masses. If our true citizenship and home are in heaven and we are but sojourners in this vale of tears, then we don’t have to and indeed should not take this life very seriously, which all too often has resulted in indifference to injustice and human suffering (especially injustice to other people and other people’s suffering). On the other hand, a Christianity which focuses too exclusively on the social gospel and worldly relevance with little reference to the ultimate runs the danger of ending up as little more than an ethical culture society with good music.

It seems to me that one reason why we may have this problem of oscillating back and forth between the eternal and the present moment, between heaven and earth, is that even though we know better consciously, subconsciously we are still clinging to too literal a picture of God’s relation to our world, in a sense too literal a picture of the Ascension of Christ. God is there somewhere, up there, or out there, or back there, and Christ has gone there to be at God’s right hand (we know that’s a metaphor!) (Don’t we?), and some day we will go there to be with God, but meanwhile we are here. And if God is there and we are here, then although we are in different places we are still within the same system, the same universe, and it makes sense that we would have to choose one place or the other to place our hearts, here or there, because in our universe you can only be in one place at a time.

On the other hand, if we have a much greater, less restrictive picture of the relation of heaven and earth — heaven, the immediate presence of God, which if it is anywhere at all must be neither here nor there but "everywhere." But note that we are immersed in metaphor here, because any "where" language places God within our universe of four dimensions. (Or actually I guess the string theorists say this universe exists in eleven dimensions, but seven of them are all curled up. Nobody knows exactly what that means, but it makes the math come out right.)

(A good working definition of "mystery," for both scientists and theologians: "Nobody knows exactly what it is, but it makes the math come out right.")

But God transcends all four (or all eleven) dimensions of our universe. Earth and heaven are not here and there, but here and (shall we say) even more deeply here. Or something. I can’t find my own words to say what I mean, so I’ll steal from Julian of Norwich, no mean wielder of metaphor herself: "He showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand.… I looked at it and thought: What can this be? And I was given this … answer: It is everything which is made." The whole of the created universe, the vast expanse of interstellar space, hundreds of billions of galaxies each with hundreds of billions of stars, are but as a hazelnut in the palm of God.

And the God who surrounds and fills all the dimensions of space and time of this universe (and of all others there may be), and sustains it in being lest it fall into nothing because (as Julian says) God loves it, this God has chosen to project the divine self into this universe, into our world, in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. And then in Christ’s Ascension not only to return to God’s self but to bring us along, ultimately to raise us to transcendence as well. Or perhaps to expand us to transcendence, even to explode us into eternity — to replace one spatial metaphor with other spatial metaphors!

What I’m fumbling for here is a conceptual framework that may make it easier for us to see and understand that ultimately we do not belong to this world, but that in no way means abandonment of this world or contempt for this world, but on the contrary is the ground and possibility of a deeper engagement with this world in service and mission. As Christians, as people of the Ascension, our home is not "there" but is more deeply here because we are not merely "here" but rooted in the very ground of "here." Not called out of this world, but sent into this world to transform the world and in Christ to bear the world all the way into eternity.

"You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth."