Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Colliding Galaxies

Today’s collect and first lesson show us that the Ascension of our Lord is in the air today. The 40th day after Easter is one of those creedal feast days when what we celebrate is a doctrine, in this case “He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”

In a better-ordered parish than this one, there would be a celebration of the eucharist on Ascension Day; but on Thursday, May 1, we did not gather at the table here. We came as close as Monday’s Sweetwood eucharist honoring the Ascension, and Tuesday’s midweek eucharist here observing the Ascension. And today, after the fact, we at least look in the rear view mirror to catch what we can of this airborne and clearly movable feast.

I don’t know the artist, but a medieval painter tried his hand at the Ascension. For better or for worse, he has the disciples clustered around a spot where our Lord had stood, just a moment before, whereas at this moment that the artist attempts to catch, Jesus has lifted off and all we see of him is a pair of dangling feet at the top of the canvas. It is not among the great paintings of the Middle Ages, I suspect.

But it does push the question: Does it require belief in a multi-layered vertical universe to make sense of the Ascension?

The Hubble telescope has revealed a far more complex cosmos than first-century astronomers could describe. Think of all the reframing you have had to do in your lifetime, in order to take in magnitudes of enormity to catch up with modern astronomy’s description of the heavens. Every other thing, some stunning new image pulls us into the orbit of a startling concept we might never have imagined. The latest I saw was an image of the collision of two galaxies, a complex event that would see some stars make it through any number of near misses, and some explode on impact. I’m sure there’s a much more accurate description of that image than what I’ve just said, but I haven’t enough command of the language and science to give it to you.

But I’m imagining that our Williams seniors, whom we celebrate today, have a more coherent understanding of the heavens than I do, in part because they are the heirs of finer science in their formal education than I was in mine. Perhaps one of them can explain to me the collision of galaxies, later… Or, educational evolution being what it is, perhaps that will require a seventh grader?

Recall those angels in our first reading, and their questioning the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

For them, it was a simpler thing than it may be for us to locate heaven. The psalmist could sing, “God rides in the heavens, the ancient heavens… God’s strength is in the skies,” and in that several-storied universe, this all made sense.

But where do we locate heaven? If astronomy helps us do that, I’ll bet it will be by giving us new metaphors. Those black holes I read about while I’m in Dr. Lapidus’s waiting room enjoying The Smithsonian, will some astrophysical image like that give future artists and poets and preachers and musicians new descriptive language for imagining heaven?

Or will it always be the work of angels to address disciples with a gentle scolding, “Why spend your time speculating about heaven? Get on with your mission, for this Christ who has ascended will return to this earth—and if this realm is that important to God, hadn’t you better steward it just as generously as you can, build in it the right ordering of peace on earth, good will towards all?”

What does the Ascension of Christ have to do with this physical life of ours? The Prayer Book Catechism asks this question. I don’t know about you, but I find that those curt, tense little answers in the Catechism dangle like verbal counterparts to those feet on that medieval canvas. But this answer may be helpful:

“Q: What do we mean when we say that he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father?

A: We mean that Jesus took our human nature into heaven where he now reigns with the Father and intercedes for us.”

At the end of today’s Gospel portion, we hear him pray, “Holy Father, protect them (us, his people in the world) protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

There, for me, is the meaning of the Ascension: this doctrine shows that, despite the worst that the world could do to Jesus, his unity with God his Source and Origin and his All could not be broken. Because of the grace given to us in baptism, it is true for us as well: the unity we have with God in Jesus Christ cannot be broken.

In our relationship with him, given to us in baptism, claimed in faith, we are in that unity that he has with the Father. He has taken our nature with him into the center of God, making possible for us daily that centering in God that we are built to enjoy. Protecting us, freeing us, for unity with God is that name Jesus says God has given him.

That sent me to the commentary. “Name,” I muttered. What name?

“Name”, I learn there, means the identity and character and nature of God. Jesus has revealed God’s name—that is, God’s identity and character and nature—and that revelation has shaped the identity and character and nature of the faith community of the disciples during Jesus’s ministry. (Somewhere in the First Letter of John we read, “As he is in this world, so are we.”) He now asks that God keep secure the community’s grounding, centering, in that name. That God ensure the unity of the faith community which mirrors the unity of God and Jesus.

Put that with the simplicity you’ll find in the First Letter of John, and it sounds like this: “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God… for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him… Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another… if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit… God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

Anne, Ben, Caitlin, Paul, Sara, Scot: God abides in you. You have shown your love among us in service, worship, and community. You will have left an abiding name here, and we hope that something of us will abide with you.

Now back to the colliding of galaxies. Something like that is happening throughout our little cosmos. Empires of culture collide in war. Economic forces and failures clash in the world’s markets. Presidential elections pit star against star. Our own Anglican Communion is hot with friction as values and beliefs smash into one another.

In the face of all this, power deeper and truer than force is at work among us. The Book of Acts tells us: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…” The First Letter of Peter says, “The God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” And as John told us, God has given Jesus authority for the benefit of all people. So in him, deep authority of love is given to us as well.

Scot, Sara, Paul, Caitlin, Ben, Anne: May you wield it well, this spiritual power, along with fine science, and all the good you carry with you.