In seminary, we were often invited to ask ourselves, “How much am I living today in the light of eternal life, of heaven?” It is a sobering and hopeful question. It puts everything into perspective. It calms fears, relativizes trivial things, energizes tired relationships and enlightens complex situations. Living today, living every activity, every encounter, living my loneliness, my daydreaming, my discomfort with our current situation, in the light of the definitive encounter with the One Who is love, is the best—really, the only—way to live, the way that makes complete sense of my life.
In this brief video, the (105th) Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby (primary shepherd for us Episcopalians, for us Christians in the Anglican part of the one universal Christian Church), shares with us his faith. He movingly says “When I meet Jesus Christ at the judgment…what matters is that I loved Him and sought to follow Him and, above all, that I trusted in Him alone for my life and my future…”
I invite you, today, to say to yourself something along these lines, “My Lord, the Love of my life, comes to me every day. And, there will be a day when He comes to take me definitively into His embrace. In the light of that encounter, of His embrace in which I want to be forever, I want to live this day.”
This Sunday, the Easter cycle concludes with the Feast of Pentecost (after Resurrection and Ascension). On this Principal Feast, the Holy Spirit is sent to the disciples – and to us.
In our first reading, confusion reigns. The Tower of Babel is erected by descendents of Noah (Genesis 11: 1- 9). The Lord decides to confuse their language, “so they will not understand one another’s speech.” Then, he scattered them all over the face of the earth.
Many years later, the miraculous Easter cycle begins. On Pentecost the disciples speak in many languages that all can understand. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, those from Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phyrgia and Pamphlia, Egypt and Cyrene, all hear their own languages. (Acts 2: 1-11)
The reason? Jesus kept his promise. The Holy Spirit had filled the disciples, so they could communicate with all.
The message? All could understand God’s deeds of power. Later in Acts, we learn that 3,000 were baptized as a result of that powerful event.
Thus the miraculous Easter cycle is completed. All understand the power of God.
That is what we will celebrate Sunday. It is a gift from God that endures to the present day.
Thanks be to God
On May 26, the Church commemorates Augustine, first Archbishop of Canterbury. He is depicted as the figure on the far left above the high altar at the Church of the Ascension and St. Agnes.
Augustine was the leader of a group of monks sent to England as missionaries by Pope Gregory the Great in 597, although Christian communities had already been active in Britain for several centuries. We know that these missionaries brought with them a silver cross and an icon of Christ. They may have also brought what is now known as the St. Augustine Gospels, an illuminated manuscript currently at Cambridge University, or this book may have reached them in England in 601.
Many of us have relocated ourselves at least once in our lives. As we grow older, we may feel like pilgrims through time, since in today’s world every period seems like a culture of its own. What treasures in our hearts or memories continue to travel with us? What objects help us remember our identities as we journey on through space and time?
Memorial Day began as a commemoration of Union Army soldiers who had died during the American Civil War. Its reach in recognition and memory later extended to the Confederate Army dead, eventually to all who have died in military service, and even beyond that to civilian family members who have died—a secular All Souls Day. Since then Lincoln’s Address at the Gettysburg battlefield cemetery is read at civic Memorial Day services.
Lincoln began by saying that the United States as a new nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He concluded by calling on his audience to rededicate themselves to America’s founding ideals: “That we here highly resolve . . . that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom-- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
The new birth of freedom that followed our Civil War was fitful and by no means has yet been fully accomplished—our nation is still a work in progress. And we argue over the meaning of “freedom.” I think that what Lincoln was urging and hoping for was not just freedom in the sense of my being able to do whatever I want whenever I want. That is license, not freedom. Rather, what Lincoln seems to have meant by “freedom, under God” is akin to what St. Augustine had meant long before. In a meditation Augustine said that Jesus is “the master whom to serve is perfect freedom.” Later this reference to perfect freedom was included in a collect in the liturgy in Rome and that collect’s translation by Archbishop Cranmer appears in the service for Matins in the English Book of Common Prayer: “O God who art the author of peace and lover of concord . . . whose service is perfect freedom . . .”
St. Augustine understood that true freedom, perfect freedom, is to do what Jesus wants for us to do—love God and our neighbor, pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Now we face a pandemic that is resulting in death and suffering on a scale similar to that of war. On this day of national remembrance and reflection let us pray for all who have died in the past and give thanks for the sacrifices they have made for us. Let us also pray for all those in the pandemic who are sick or in other kinds of distress. Let us give thanks and pray for the safety of those who are caring for our fellow citizens who are suffering. And let us pray for the future of our nation as a whole, that, in the midst of our present troubles, God may bring about good—a new birth of freedom. Perfect freedom.
Elizabeth Catez was born in 1880 in Avor, France. Her father was an army captain and died when she was seven. She had a younger sister, nicknamed Guite, to whom she was close. It was at that age of seven that Elizabeth told a family friend that she would one day be a nun. On her twenty-first birthday she had her mother’s blessing at last to enter the Carmelite monastery in Dijon, close to her home. Elizabeth became ill shortly after entering Carmel and suffered for five years from a stomach ailment, now thought to have been Addison’s disease, incurable at the time. In the midst of her suffering, her sister nuns came to discover how much Elizabeth was a great lover of Jesus and a true friend to them. She died November 9, 1906, at age 26. Her last words were: “I am going to Light, to Love, to Life!”
Let us be inspired by what she wrote in her spiritual journal:
"It seems to me that I have found my heaven on earth, because my heaven is you, my God, and you are in my soul. You in me, and I in you – may this be my motto. What a joyous mystery is your presence within me, in that intimate sanctuary of my soul where I can always find you, even when I do not feel your presence. Of what importance is feeling? Perhaps you are all the closer when I feel you less."
Today is the Feast of the Ascension.
On March 1, 1845, the Diocese of Maryland’s Convention approved formation of Ascension Church, carving it out of St. John’s Lafayette Square. (The Diocese of Washington wasn’t created until 1895). In June, 1874, financier William W. Corcoran donated land at 12th and Massachusetts, and construction began at the present location.
So Ascension has been in our church’s DNA, if you will, since its inception. It’s traditionally celebrated 40 days after Easter, always on a Thursday (though it’s often translated -- moved -- to the following Sunday). It’s an ancient feast, mentioned by Eusebius in the fourth century and St. Augustine in the fifth century.
Ascension commemorates Jesus’ departure from earth to heaven. It’s described in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 24: 44-53) and in Acts (Acts 1:1-11). It is central to our faith. Jesus, sitting at the right hand of God, advocates for us with God. He offers the promise that our spirits, too, will rise. Most important, He sends the Holy Spirit to us, as he promised.
These days, we reaffirm this in our liturgy. In the Apostles’ Creed, we say, “He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God.” In the Sursum Corda, we pray “Lift up your hearts” to lift our hearts and spirits to commune with the risen God, through the Holy Spirit.
You have a great opportunity to learn more on-line this Sunday, May 24 at 9:15 a.m.
Rev. Dr. Sarah Coakley, our assisting priest and resident theologian, and Dr. William Werpehowski, Chair, Department of Religion, Georgetown University will discuss, “Ascension – What Does it mean for us that Christ ‘Ascended into Heaven?’”
Check out the School of Theology to register for a thought-provoking talk!
And Happy Ascension Day!
Tomorrow is the fortieth day of Easter Season, Ascension Day, one of the seven principal feasts of the Episcopal Church. The mystery of Christ’s Ascension, commemorated on this day, is also recognized in the name of our parish.
The Ascension is the subject of two common misunderstandings. In his Ascension, our Lord did not shed his body or his human nature as though It were a winter coat. Instead, he continues as one person, both divine
and human. He ascended as an embodied, glorified human being.
The Ascension is misunderstood if it is seen simply as a departure, an exit.
Jesus does not so much leave as he becomes present and accessible in a new way. God is everywhere, all the time. With the Ascension, God incarnate becomes present everywhere, all the time. This mystery means that the universe, all creation becomes “christified” and “humanized.”
So Christ is now available to us in all circumstances, whether they are marked by joy or sorrow. We can go forth each morning to encounter Jesus Christ concealed in all of life, absolutely all of life, for he waits for us there.
Our Church Kalendar for this week designates Monday through Wednesday as Rogation Days, from the Latin rogare, to entreat. It originated as a pagan festival of procession through newly planted fields, with prayer that the eventual harvest not be spoiled by crop disease. After Christianization, when the festival was adopted in rural England, it became a procession around the perimeter of the local parish, blessing the fields and checking boundary markers with the neighboring parish. The procession was called “beating the bounds.” As the rector walked together with the local squire and other parishioners they also checked for within-parish boundary issues as they greeted people they encountered—for example, encroachments on tillable field plots or on right of way between adjoining fields. Disputes over these matters could be settled informally without having to go to the squire’s court. The rogation processions showed that the Church was concerned not just with what was happening inside the walls of its worship building, but with the activity of everyday life in the whole geographic parish, including the mundane conduct of the central aspects of rural economic life—right relationships in tending and harvesting the fields.
Our parish does not have geographic boundaries in the same way as in England, and we are located in a city rather than in countryside. So, we can’t bless the fields, thump parish boundary stones with our walking sticks, and resolve local disputes. Yet, we too are concerned not only for what happens inside the walls of our church building but also what happens in its immediate area. If you draw a circle around Ascension and St. Agnes with a radius of just a half-mile, think of all that is included in that space. There are lobbying firms on K Street, pastry shops, embassies, think tanks, schools, grocery stores, hotels, and the city’s conference center. There are expensive apartment buildings and publicly assisted living units. There are people who are economists and people who are homeless, entrepreneurs and janitors, physicians and lawyers and schoolteachers. People from all the world’s races, speaking numerous languages. People with differing strengths and differing primary thirsts: for success, for food and shelter, for profit, for safety, for knowledge, for dignity, for meaning, for community, for God. It’s a cross section of America—at least, of urban America. People who are mutually interdependent, some without realizing this, joined in right relationships and wrong relationships. How do we as a parish engage this?
In our current situations of isolation that exploration has to be an exercise of imagination, not of physical presence—a virtual rogation procession. But we have been given time now for such reflection. As things begin to open up and we return physically to the church community we love and have missed so much, we can develop new awareness of our church’s surround--the parish in a geographic sense. It is a particular place to which we have been drawn by God. We can envision new ways of connecting with our neighbors beyond the building’s walls, witnessing to God’s love and God’s concerns for justice. This presents both challenge and opportunity for the future. Let us engage these, by God’s help, with hope. But, for now, virtual rogation and the beginnings of discernment.
Acceptance is difficult. Well, let me speak for myself! Accepting things as they are is difficult for me. I so often want things—especially people!—to be different. Imagine life a play. I would be the set designer and the director—which, of course, everyone ignores! To the degree I persist in unacceptance, however, I am unhappy. It is as simple as that.
One of my favourite musical groups growing up was the Irish band, U2. An early song of theirs was called “Rejoice”. In it, the singer, Bono, sings, “I can't change the world, but I can change the world in me…if I rejoice.” There you have it: the key that opens the door to happiness is acceptance. To accept is not to approve or to feel comfortable with or to be resigned to. To accept is, well, to accept, to welcome.
Let us welcome people, places and situations as they are and focus on what needs to be changed in us. Then, we can really discern the hand of God. Then, we can really experience the love of God.
While pondering what to write this week, a fellow deacon sent me a pamphlet entitled, “Spiritual First Aid.” Published by the Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HDI), it’s a compendium of advice for helping people in times of crisis. (HDI is a faith-based academic research center.) In it is a list of Scriptures that have been found to be comforting. Here are some of them.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers,
nor things present, nor things to come,
nor power, nor heights, nor depth
nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us
from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.
1 Peter 5:7
Bear one another’s burdens
and in this way you will fulfill the laws of Christ.
The pamphlet also offers, in its 54 pages, some advice for coping.
The Rev. Frederick Erickson, a retired university professor,