Saturday, 16 May 2015

Christmas Backwards - Ascension, Liturgy and Life


"We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face."

These words from the contemporary Cambridge poet and priest Malcolm Guite admirably sum up what happens to the universe in Jesus Christ, and is made finally manifest at His Ascension: heaven and earth become part of each other's story. Creation meets creator in the one who is both heavenly and human.

But there is more than just a meeting, there is a movement, too, and one which contradicts our earth-rooted rules: for in this case, what has come down must go back up. Moreover, God's pattern of descent and ascent is the pattern we are called to follow in our worship and our lives. It is the light that can transfigure us here below and make us light – as feathers, to float into union with the Divine.

In the topsy-turvy logic of heaven, Christ had to come down before He could rise. His descent begins with Christmas, or even before, with the Holy Spirit flowing through Mary to conceive Him. He descends into Bethlehem, or properly Beth Lechem, 'the House of Bread' in Hebrew. He descends into base matter to become our basic food, our bread of life, born in a cave behind an inn. And He keeps descending. He descends into the ranks of sinners at the Jordan to be baptised, but that is not low enough. He descends to the lepers, the tax-collectors, the prostitutes, the outcasts of society, but that is not low enough. He descends to scourging and spitting and execution as a criminal, but not even that is low enough. For before He can ascend, God must go deeper still, must know not just death but even the depths of Hell. God must know what it is to be without God. He must reach down even to the forsaken.

But now we are on a mountain top: gone from lowly Beth-Lechem up to the Mount of Olives, from the House of Bread to an orchard of finer fruit, whose fronds - we remember - are used at games to make the victors' crown; whose oil is used to burn bright and warm; whose leaves were once carried by a dove to show Noah that the promised land was near. And so the Lord is crowned, His glory burns behind the cloud, and the promise of His Kingdom sheds just a ray.

But He left us with more than just a promise. Where the head goes, the body must surely follow: and we, the Church, are His body, because we share in His body given to us as bread. He left us with the Holy Spirit, and in the Eucharist, He gives us the means of calling that Spirit into our lives and the pattern by which we are to live them.

In our Liturgy, after the song of the angels - "Holy, Holy, Holy" - the priest invokes the Holy Spirit to descend on the gifts, fill them and make them into the body and blood of Christ. As he says the words, his hands descend in the shape of the wings of a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit. If you went to the Indian Orthodox church of St Thomas in Hemel Hempstead, where they use the ancient Syrian rite, you would see the priest even fluttering his hands over the gifts like wings. This is why there is a great dove on the ceiling above the sanctuary in our church. The Spirit is called down and Christ descends into humble bread, as He did into the humble Virgin's womb: the Christmas moment of the Mass.

Next, at the words of institution, the priest shows the body and blood of Christ the people: this, you could call the Epiphany moment. But at the end of the Prayer, the priest lifts up the Body and Blood higher still, at once showing to the people and offering up to the Father the crucified and resurrected Son, a Good Friday and Easter moment – but as the bells ring, and the lights are lifted, and the cloud of incense swirls around the elevated Host, might we not also see in that moment something of the Ascension – a vision of heaven breaking through?

Only after the Ascension does Pentecost come, and the Spirit dwell among us. So only after this elevation of the spirit-filled bread and wine do we receive them. We creatures 'rooted in time and space' could not take the eternal and transcendent Spirit neat, so Jesus gives It to us in a form we can consume, in bread and wine. But the Ascension gives us the reason why He gives us this food at all.

You could call the Ascension “Christmas backwards.” At Christmas, Christ assumed our humanity. In the Ascension, He lifts up our humanity with Him. The Eucharist is the vehicle by which He effects this: He dwells in us that we might dwell in Him, lifted high to the Father. The challenge for us is to live in the knowledge that our human nature is already lifted up to the heights of heaven, and yet to continue descending to the lowest and most despised parts of creation and lift them up with us. Who are they, I wonder – the modern-day equivalents of the leper, the tax-collector, the prostitute? Where might you meet them this week? How might you go out of your way to find them? Nourished by the Holy Spirit, can you show them the glory of your humanity as it truly is, risen and Ascended in God?

Let me finish with the rest of Malcolm Guite's sonnet.

"We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we our selves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,

Which all creation waits to see revealed."

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