Thursday, May 25, 2017

Ascension Day- May 25, 2017

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Randy Greve, OHC
Ascension Day -  Thursday, May 25, 2017

Br. Randy Greve, OHC

It weighs 20 pounds, has 800 pages, is 4 inches think and 11 inches wide by 16 inches tall.  I first encountered it at Mt. Carmel Spiritual Centre in Niagara Falls when I was there for the Haden Spiritual Direction program.  It lives in the common guest space and during each of the four trips I made there for the program I would look through a few more pages.  I nicknamed it “the pamphlet”.  The actual name of the book is Ars Sacra, sacred art, (the Latin title gives it a little more weight – as if it needed it).  It is more a coffee table than a coffee table book (and is only $85.15 on Amazon).

An ambitious piece of art in itself which sets out to be a photographic record of Christian art all of its forms - icons, buildings, stained glass, and nearly every other way humans have engaged matter to evoke and represent the divine from late antiquity to the mid twentieth century.  Reviews contain words like gorgeous, extraordinary, and mind-blowing and I would concur.  It is humbling to hold in one’s hand, in one place, almost 2000 years of human creativity.  With each turn of a page I wondered what was in the mind of the Byzantine iconographer or the Gothic stonemason or Baroque painter.  Was the creation the search for the transcendent or the record of having already seen heaven?
Ascension highlights the transition of Jesus’ particular presence in our physical world to the all-encompassing, omnipresent Jesus mediated through the Holy Spirit in a community of word and sacrament.  But within a few decades Christians are erecting buildings to “house” Jesus, to re-particularize him.  They get more elaborate and more expensive and as beautiful and inspiring as they are, I am not altogether at ease with these human creations. I don’t know how to reconcile the dissonance between proclaiming the Holy Spirit let loose in the world – the entire world – and making certain places and objects “sacred”.  I live in this world yet believe in and look for and hope for the unseen and eternal which we call heaven. Does Ars Sacra elevate my humanity or trivialize it?  Inspire me to want to escape or distract me from the work that needs to be done here and now?

The meaning of the Ascension begins in the incarnation itself.  Jesus takes on, redeems, and elevates our humanity in the incarnation, thus calling our physical and material lives good as God’s idea and gift.  The one who called us to consider the birds and flowers, who told parables about the earth and plants and trees and harvests, the one who ate and drank his way through the gospels certainly delights in the natural, physical world.

Jesus is our model for how to be authentically human in our relationship to the world – to enjoy it, be inspired by it, learn from it, but not to seek to manipulate, possess, or distort it for our own selfish agendas.  Jesus’ way of being human is to be the artist of your life, and have the joy, anger, and sorrow of life with openness, wonder, and gratitude. The earth is a beautiful gift, our lives are precious treasures, but at the same time the earth is groaning, we are sighing and dying, and so our hope is planted in beauty and treasure that is beyond what we can see and touch.

Two phrases from the readings illuminate the nature of our human experience.  In Acts, the two men in white robes say to the astonished apostles who have just witnessed the Ascension, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”  Their conversion (and ours) is to stop looking for Jesus and to start living the presence of Jesus.  Meaning is not “up there”, out of our grasp, but among us and in us.  Spiritual growth does not happen by stretching across what we imagine is the chasm of distance between this world and heaven, but by fully living human life in the here and now with expectant presence.

In the gospel reading, the response of the apostles after the Ascension states that “they were continually in the temple blessing God.”  They move off the mountain and look around.  They go to the place that most dramatically stands for God on earth, the temple, and in that place where heaven touches earth in a particular way, they receive the power of their vocations and let be in them God’s gift of life as they wait for the day of Pentecost.This conversion is what the monastic life is all about for us and its gift to the world.  The great breakthrough of St. Benedict needs to be heard today more than ever.

The Rule of St Benedict dismantles and rejects the artificial and dangerous division of sacred and secular.  He describes a way to particularize the sacred space or object as a way to relate to a holy world and then to see the world differently, not to create two different worlds.  Places and objects consecrated and set aside for liturgical use are meant to remind us of the sacredness of all the earth, all life, not to partition away some and call the rest merely ordinary.  The church, the art, the chalices, the sacrament is not an alternative reality but the unveiling and deepening of life as it actually is.  Authentic life in the spirit does not camp on the esoteric and disembodied mountain top, but is mediated and revealed in the sacred ordinary.

For Benedict, there is no such thing as one’s “spiritual life”, there is life.  And that includes the tedious, irritating, and boring bits as well as those moments and places which are more overtly transcendent.  Our hope is in this body’s, this world’s regeneration, its completion, with the flesh and blood, scarred, glorious, reigning Christ at the center where he is even now.

The mystery which is the Ascension has something to do with the beauty of Christ’s continuing incarnate existence. Books like Ars Sacra and the art that it shows are the hints and glimpses, the foreshadowings and foretastes of the heaven which intersects into our own world even as this art makes our own world more of the beautiful gift it can be. Because we are works of art longing to create even as we are created, the art of our lives is integral to our conversion.  In the ink, paint, earth, photograph, music, prayer, poetry – or whatever form, we are ars sacra. Amen.

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