Sunday, May 16, 2010

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for Ascension Sunday

Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Eph 1:17-23; Lk 24:46-53

The Ascension of Jesus into heaven has remained a favorite of artists for many years. And more often than not they depict the Ascension taking place on a mountain top. (Perhaps they wanted to give Jesus a head start.) However, the two New Testament texts that describe the Ascension (Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles) make no mention of a mountain or even a high place.

Perhaps the artists place it on a mountain because mountains have a very prominent significance in Christian spirituality. That’s a point forcefully made in a book that I’m currently reading: The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: exploring desert and mountain spiritualities. The author is Belden Lane, a Presbyterian minister who has taught theology at St. Louis University for decades. He’s written a remarkable book, but also one that is very difficult to read. He works with three separate focal points that he wants to elaborate individually and then interweave with one another. The first point is the significance of deserts and mountains in biblical and later Christian spirituality. The second point is the experience of journeying with his mother as she slowly died from cancer. (That’s a fierce landscape in itself.) The third point studies the significance of various themes of apophatic spirituality in the Christian tradition. Apophatic spirituality is the effort that seeks a relationship with God without the use of any images. Most Christian spirituality is kataphatic; it works through images, images drawn from our human experience and then super-applied to God: God is all-good, God is all-loving, God is all-just. An apophatic spirituality relies on what we don’t know and can’t know about God. Like I said, it’s a tough read.

But it’s also a very rewarding read! It offers a lot of thoughts that just make me stop and reflect even more. Let me read you some passages that I plan to go over again and again. "When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, she was given six months to live.... Roles were reversed, as I (an only child) became mother to my mother....It was an experience of discovering an unlikely grace in a grotesque landscape of feeding tubes and bed restraints, wheelchairs and diapers, nausea and incontinence." (p. 25) "Flannery O’Connor once remarked that ‘sickness is more instructive than a long trip to Europe. She confessed that sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies." (p.29) "When life confronts us with our limits, those who have lived with limits all their lives instruct us most profoundly." (p. 30) "All theologizing, if worth its salt, must submit to the test of hospital gowns, droning TV sets, and food spilled in the clumsy effort to eat. What can be said of God that may be spoken without shame in the presence of those who are dying." (p. 35) "Apophatic spirituality has to start at the point where every other possibility ends. Prayer without words can only begin where loss is reckoned as total." (p. 36) There’s a lot of material for reflection here.

What does the author say about the role of mountains in biblical spirituality? In biblical religion Yahweh is a God who repeatedly leads people into the desert and toward the mountains. God meets Moses on Mt. Sinai. Elijah encounters God on Mt. Horeb in a "still, small voice." The desert is the place of stripping and purgation; the mountain becomes the place of revelation. But it’s usually a revelation vastly different from what is expected by we mortals.

So perhaps the Ascension is best depicted on a mountain. What the Ascension signifies theologically is that all created things have been put under Jesus. He has become the true measure of all value, worth and goodness. What a paradox! This seeming failure, this humiliated and crucified man has become the lens which evaluates everything else in existence. That’s a revelation vastly different from what we might humanly expect. But it’s what we celebrate this Ascension feastday.

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