Homily: Ascension Sunday, 24 May 2020
Acts 1:1-11, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 28:16-20
Although I had finished my education and had already taught university level courses for two years, I thought that to teach graduate students, as I was slated to do, I should have a better grasp of contemporary British literature. To that end I decided to take part in a six-week program at the University of London in the summer of 1964. Consequently, I crossed the Atlantic a first time. I booked passage on the Queen Mary for June of that year to do the deed. The first three days on the ocean were bright and sunny, the last two cloudy with a touch of rain. But before the day that the clouds came, I spent a good deal of the second and third nights aft the ship gazing at the stars. Having been reared in Brooklyn, New York, educated in Washington, D.C., and taught in Philadelphia and New York City my life-time views of the night sky were always unhappily illuminated by city lights. On the ocean the unfiltered heavens of the Northern Hemisphere were infinite and bright beyond imagining. I would not see their like again until I was in the Southern Hemisphere near Uluru, Australia, in 2008. These two events are etched indelibly in my otherwise and evermore sketchy memory.
I saw something equally breath-taking on 16 July 1969 when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon. The moon, I must nonetheless say, looked better as a light in the sky than as a place to take a walk. But the Saturn V rocket’s getting Apollo 11 off the earth’s surface and into the moon’s orbit was as spectacular a daylight sight as anyone could have witnessed. I mention this now because we are celebrating the feast of the Ascension. You did not have to look into the depths of the star-strewn heavens or have to be alive to see and hear Neil Armstrong on the moon to understand today that what we read in Acts of the Apostles could not have taken place in any literal sense. It’s a matter of metaphor. Today we shall try to get an understanding of that metaphor.
To help us let’s call on the Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in his sonnet “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame.” Let me just note that Hopkins uses a brightly colored bird and a clear-winged insect in the first line of his poem, which reads:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
Hopkins takes us from stones ringing to myself speaking: from the unmistakable individuality of the inanimate to the unmistakable individuality of the speaking, crying, breathing animate human self. He obviously wants us to know this because he has something to say in the last six lines of his poem, that might suggest otherwise.
I say more: the just man justices;
Kéeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
So the question for Hopkins is: How can I be myself and Christ at the same time? And, of course, that is the question for us, too. Or in the spirit of today’s feast: We, each of us, want to ask ‘How can Christ ascend into me?’ I think that the answer is by our ascending into him. How is that to be done?
The just man justices and keeps all his goings graces. Is there a better instance of that than we find in the Jesus of the gospels who would have us care for the lonely, the thirsty, the hungry, the weary, the unwell, the rejected whom we meet along the way and whom we are ever more likely to meet in our present problematic time? We know from the gospels that Jesus began his ministry by celebrating a wedding at Cana, changing water into wine (Jn 2:1-11); he filled Simon Peter’s boat and a second boat with fish on Lake Gennesaret (Lk 5:4-7); he fed the 5,000 that followed him to the Sea of Tiberias (Jn 6:1-14); he took time to sit and chat with Mary (Lk. 10:42); to visit and cure Peter’s sick mother-in-law (Lk 4:39); to shed tears for the dead Lazarus (Jn 1233, 43-44); to stop at Jacob’s Well to speak to the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:7-10); to stop a crowd and invite a tax-collector to come down from a sycamore tree, saying “Zacharias, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today” (Lk 19-5). Although our bodies may be at a distance from one another, our minds and hearts need not be. In a word, the scriptures overall ask us to care for one another on the model of Christ’s caring whatever the moment may be.
In other words, our celebration of the Ascension must not be a one-day event. It must be a ground-level everyday part of life. We see this in a more encompassing way in organizations like Les Médecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) which delivers emergency medical care world-wide to people caught in crises of every kind imaginable. We see it more nationally in the doctors and nurses and their aides who work endless hours in clinics and hospitals to keep us safe. I see it personally in my nephew who runs the Emergency Department of Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Sacramento, California. He sometimes works eighty-hour weeks, taking time for himself only when he must. We see it in organizations like Feeding America which gets fresh fruits and vegetables to people facing hunger here, there, and everywhere in this country; thereby, reaching some 37 million people. We see it closer to home in the UW Odyssey Project, which takes a whole-family approach to breaking the cycle of generational poverty through access to education, giving adult and youth learners a voice and increasing confidence through reading, writing, and speaking. We see it right here at Holy Wisdom Monastery where we have Lynne and Lynn. Sr. Lynne Smith has enabled spiritual togetherness at the Sunday Assembly when a physical togetherness became impossible. And Lynn Lemberger, Director of Worship and Music, has kept us in harmony. Each would have us know, in the words of Julian of Norwick, that “God is never out of the soul, in which he will dwell blessedly without end.” Therefore, the Ascension is not a one up-and-down singular moment in the Christian calendar, but a broad-based worldwide, everyday invitation to be one with one another in as humanly significant a way as possible. That is, in Christ’s w ay.