Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Easter 7 B - May 20, 2012

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br.  James Michael Dowd , OHC
Easter 7 B - Sunday, May 22, 2012

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
1 John 5:9-13
John 17: 6-19


In his Rule, St. Benedict tells us that the “life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent.”  I think we can all agree that for those of us who are Anglican Benedictines, that's just a wee bit dreary.  While I take the Rule of Benedict quite seriously, and have found much in it to edify, teach, and guide me – this particular passage simply does not. Now, in the very next verse, Benedict goes on to say, referring to that continuous Lent, that “few, however, have the strength for this” and I am willing to accept the fact that I may be one of those very monks Benedict was talking about.

But I have another reason for not wanting the spirituality of Lent to be the sole focus of my life, because I think the very essence of a monk's life is best appreciated in two other liturgical seasons of the year: those of Advent, and that which we are in the midst of, Ascensiontide.  Both seasons are about learning to “wait for the Lord,” in the case of Advent, waiting for the Lord's coming, and in the case of Ascensiontide, waiting for the Holy Spirit.  I think that very stance of “waiting for the Lord” is the stance a monk must take as he lives, day by day, more deeply into his vocation.

The community has a good friend, Suzanne Guthrie, and she and I were exchanging emails this week regarding Ascensiontide, and she wrote that she thinks the “practice” of Ascensiontide is the most important “practice” we can engage in as Christians.  That resonated with me a great deal – and as I study more and more of the monastic tradition, I find that idea to have resonated with much of the tradition as well.

The Liturgical Calendar always gives us a strong indication as to those feasts, concepts, and religious ideas, we should take especially seriously.  The Advent/Christmas cycle is an obvious one, as is the Lent/Easter cycle.  This period of Ascensiontide often gets lumped into Eastertide, but it really is a separate season – one that is unique and has a great deal to teach us.

So, first of all, the question might be asked, what is Ascensiontide?  On its simplest level, it is a ten day period between Ascension Thursday and the Feast of Pentecost.  It is that period that we observe liturgically as the time from when Jesus was taken to heaven and before the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples.  It is also, Bernard of Clairvaux tells us, the “consummation and the fulfillment of the other liturgical feasts” and the perfect ending of the Son of God's entire journey.”  That is a very strong statement for a liturgical feast and season that we often barely notice.

So, why was Bernard so caught up in the celebration of Ascensiontide?  In another sermon on the subject, Bernard asks: “Would anyone have presumed even to yearn for an ascension to heaven if [Christ] who had descended does not ascend before us?  He goes on to say that “surely we are all eager for ascent, we all crave exaltation.  We are noble creatures and [have] greatness of soul; for that reason, we have a natural urge to long for the heights.”  He says that “to ascend to heaven, you must first lift yourself above yourself.”

So if Ascensiontide is to lift ourselves above ourselves, then how do we practice that, how do we do that?  It seems to me that we have a fine example in the Acts of the Apostles in both the reading we heard this morning and that which immediately precedes it.  After the Ascension the eleven remaining apostles return to Jerusalem and head to the Upper Room, where the Last Supper had taken place and were joined by the women who accompanied them, the Virgin Mary and the rest of Jesus' family and there, they waited, devoting themselves to “constant prayer.”

Now, what Luke gives us, both at the end of his Gospel, and here at the beginning of Acts, is what a model community of faithful disciples will do.  They will proceed, he says in the Gospel, with “great joy” and will “constantly pray.”  And that is what “waiting for the Lord” is all about.

Now the idea of “waiting” can be excruciatingly painful for people in our contemporary era.  We are a people who want what we think we want instantly.  In fact, if we could have had it a minute ago – that would have been even better.  But that is not what “waiting for the Lord” is about.  “Waiting for the Lord” is a way to be in constant prayer.  It is a particular stance that is simultaneously confident and humble.  The confidence is where the joy comes from.  There is hope, there is love, there is eternity - and the Ascension is the fulfillment of the path that Jesus shows us over the course of his lifetime to that hope, to that love and to that eternity.  The humility is the prayer piece and that prayer is to help us learn to be present to that hope, that love, that eternity.  And we are humble about this, because we know we cannot get there on our own.

The point of the Ascension is not that maybe one day we will achieve that hope, love and eternity.  No, the point is that we already have achieved it. Hope is present right here, right now.  Love is all about us. Eternity has already begun.  Waiting for the Lord is growing in our understanding of this idea.

At the Ascension, Jesus is lifted up to his throne in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Think back on where Jesus said the Kingdom of Heaven resides.  It is near, it is within you.  At the fulfillment of his kenosis, his complete and utter emptying – with his Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection, Jesus Ascends to his throne in heaven – located at the center of your being – your heart.

And that leads me back to an even more ancient monastic authority than Bernard, and directly to St. Isaac of Syria who urged each of us to:
Enter eagerly into the treasure house
that is within you.
And you will see the things that are in heaven,
for there is but one single entry to them both.
The ladder that leads to the Kingdom
is hidden within your soul.
Dive into yourself and in your soul
and you will discover the stairs
by which to ascend.
But here is the trick: entering into the treasure house within in and diving into your soul can, misunderstood, lead to a very narcissistic existence, a particular problem in our current culture.  The diving into oneself that Issac of Syria is talking about is a diving in that is a complete  kenosis, a complete emptying of ourselves, as Jesus emptied himself.  So if there is someone to forgive, forgive them.  If there is something to repent, ask forgiveness.  If there is someone to be fed, feed them.  If there is someone who mourns, comfort them.  That, done throughout every day of your life, is the process of kenosis, the process of emptying.  A process of being completely God-centered.

And that gets me to our Gospel reading today.  Jesus, praying to his Father, says:
All mine are yours, and yours are mine;
and I have been glorified in them.
And now I am no longer in the world
but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.
Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me,
so that they may be one, as we are one.
This is what Isaac of Syria was talking about I think.  The unity and oneness of God has been extended to humanity by the Son of God's complete emptying of himself and by his glorification in the Kingdom of Heaven, residing right here in each of our hearts.  His making us a part of the Body of Christ, extends that unity of God to include each one of us.  Within and among us, we are already living in the Kingdom of Heaven. Eternity, as I have said, has already begun.

And if you accept that the Kingdom of Heaven is as near as your breath, as integral to your being as the beating of your heart, then you must accept that this is true of each of your brothers and sisters as well.

And if that is true, it calls to us to replace a life of violence with a life of nonviolence, a life of greed with a life of feeding the hungry and housing the homeless, a life of isolation with a life of integration into community.

Ascension is not something to be achieved, it is something to lived.  Ascensiontide is that period of reflection that helps us to dive deeper into our souls and to ascend to the oneness of God that Jesus prayed for in the Holy Spirit.  This Ascensiontide is our time, a time to become more fully aware of the greatness of our souls,  a time of eternity,  a time for ascension.


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