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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Separation anxiety (Ascension, Year B)

When they had gathered together they asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6)



“The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.” (Mt. 28: 16-17)



I am so grateful that the gospel writers, and Mark in particular, did not too much romanticize the disciples and the Twelve. To have this motley collection of alternately courageous and perfidious, ambitious and deferential, insightful and thick-as-a-brick human beings be the foundation upon which the church is built is eminently reassuring. In a sense, the scandal of their humanity is proof of the Scripture’s fundamental veracity and consistency. In this book, in other words, and in the heart of its God, you don’t even have to be close to perfect. You can betray your friends, you can try to get a better position with the Boss than your companions, you can miss the point over and over again until the teacher’s exasperation is evident. It just doesn’t matter to the God of this narrative, for whom weakness is strength. God himself, in the matter of incarnation, chose to be a peasant artisan in a country dominated by a foreign military power, not a ruler, not a part of the ruling or dominant class.You want a revisionist gospel? Read self-help books, Left Behind, or watch Passion of the Christ. Here, at least, big losers can be bigger winners, runts become lions of faith, and political enemies become table companions.



Even now, at the end of the narrative, captured by Luke in the first chapter of Acts (above) and echoed in the passage from Matthew 28 that ends his gospel, even after the roads of Galilee and Judea, the feeding of the multitudes, his calming the lake, his healing the sick and even raising the dead; after Calvary, and Easter and numerous appearances, the meaning of Jesus and the new vision of God’s universal empire of mercy and equality is lost on the twelve, who ask aloud about the restoration of the political reign of David and the supremacy of Israel, and who even now, in Matthew’s terse, crashing verb, doubt.


Thanks, guys. You’re a good mirror in which to behold one’s Easter self each year. 


The going-away, the absence of Jesus, both in his exodus on the cross and his ascension to Abba, is an essential part of the paschal mystery. Necessarily, this absence, until the disciple has experienced the presence of the Lord in a new way, is a frightening prospect, but like all aspects of paschal life, including, apparently, the nature of Godself, it is life-giving to the full. As Jesus emptied himself on the cross and experienced the absence of Abba in his darkest hour, he was to discover the fullness of life because of the love that neither fears nor is enfeebled by the grave. It is the mystery of the grain that falls into the earth and dies. The disciple, while ever remaining a disciple of the one servant-master, the Messiah, is called to become servant-master, Messiah to others.


Jesus compares this separation anxiety the apostles feel to the birth pain of a woman in labor, an intense pain that will pass because of an as-yet undiscovered joy of new life. In the gospel of John, which does not have an Ascension narrative as such, the death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit seem to be aspects of a single reality. In John, when Jesus dies, he returns to Abba and sends the Holy Spirit at the same time, and yet, he continues to abide with the community of disciples. This is evident throughout the entire narrative of the three days, beginning with the supper and the farewell discourse, and continuing through the post-resurrection appearances. “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me, because I live and you will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.” The intimacy of Jesus with the band of disciples will endure, he says, after the pains of birth (16:21-22). 




As a liturgical musician, I’ve found it hard to find music that is other than representational (in this context, I mean music that paraphrases the scriptural narratives of the Ascension, e.g., “Hail the Day that Sees Him Rise”) for today. The second readings encourage us to see the return of Jesus to Abba as a sign of the divinization of humanity, in other words, of our own going-to-God as the completion of God’s will for us. It’s rarely touched upon in song, at least that I’m aware of. But there’s also the aspect of “why stand staring at the skies,” that refrain that points toward the work to be done and the command to await the Spirit and not lose our way either in grief, inertia, or bewilderment. This brings to mind a couple of lovely texts I’ve used in the past, but whose music is not particularly conducive to congregational participation or our architectural constraints. One is the great Oosterhuis-Huijbers round introduced to the U.S. church by Tom Conry, “Why Stand Staring”:

Why stand staring at what has gone before?
Don’t get lost in things of the past.


I, says he, will begin something new;


It’s beginning already. Haven’t you heard?


The other is Conry’s own lovely “Our Life and Our Song,” which was in Glory and Praise 3 but has been edited out of more recent incarnations of that anthology. Though it’s syncopated folk style would not suit some congregations (and organists), its text is well worth remembering:

Jesus, Son of Mary, was a carpenter’s child


And he knew what it was


To be lost and forgotten


Like the tiny seed before it grows and changes,


Strong as the wind, but near as our breathing.


He is our life and our song.


And, like the wind, gone away.


Word and silence,


He is our life and our song. 


© 1985, Team Productions, Published by OCP.


Preparing for a wedding the other day, I was realizing that my own song, “Mystery,” touches on some of the same Ascension vocabulary and prayer:

Where shall we seek you? Not in the oceans,


Not in heaven, angels have said.


Where shall we find you? Not in our history.


Why seek the living in haunts of the dead?


Why seek the living in haunts of the dead?


© 1987, North American Liturgy Resources


Like “Our Life and Our Song,” “Mystery” isn’t anthologized either. Unlike Conry’s song, it never was. C’est la guerre des chansons liturgiques.


Well, here’s what we’re doing at St. Anne’s for Ascension. Seems like this is an aspect of the paschal season that might use some more attention by poets and songwriters?


Gathering: A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing or Be Not Afraid (Gather) “I go before you always.” A song about assurance in those times when one feels the absence of God. This is a song about mission, for missionaries. Like us.

Psalm 47 Psalm for Ascension (GIA octavo, Cooney) This is an enthronement psalm, and it’s hard to reconcile with other aspects of Jesus’ preaching about leadership-as-service without some preaching, which no one ever does. When “God mounts his throne to shouts of joy,” God is carrying a bowl of water and a towel; when “all peoples clap their hands,” it is with joy and relief that our slavery to ambition and greed has come to an end, because our God gives everything away without price.
Preparation rite: I Am for You (Gather) In the scriptural story of God’s solidarity with us, and the Spirit of God prompting us toward and enabling our solidarity with one another, the name of God becomes an analog of that ongoing energy. The Exodus name of God, YHWH, whose full meaning, if there is one, is lost in history, was sometimes translated rabbinically to mean something like, “who I am, I am for you.” This insight, from the Jerusalem Bible, was part of the inspiration for this song.

Communion: I Am the Bread of Life (Gather, Toolan)
Recessional:  I Send You Out (Gather, Angotti)
 or Marcy Weckler Barr's adaptation of "Thula Sizwe," a South African liberation song, entitled He Is Living, He Is Risen.

...You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. 
(Acts 1:8)