Ascension Sunday, Year B
May 20, 2012
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
“…so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you…what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints…and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe according to the working of his great power.”
Today we remember the Ascension of Our Lord, the occasion when Jesus ascended into heaven to be seated at the right hand of God. The central issues of the Ascension have very little to do with what Jesus was up too once He left the temporal realm, the realm of time and space, and have even less to do with how He got there. Rather, the Ascension has everything to do with what we are up too here and now, knowing that God, at least God located in the fully human substance of Jesus Christ, is no longer here or now. I know this sounds technical if not inane, but if we do not get some of this stuff straight, some of our understandings in order, the whole thing, the Christian vocation itself can be nonsensical, or worse, we can be led to idolatry and all other kinds of bad religion. Right thinking alone will not get you to God; but wrong thinking guarantees that you won’t.
So what are we to do in the wake of Christ’s bodily departure? (And no, it does not matter if it happened this way, rising in glory on a cloud. This is just the story that we have and stories are generally better at conveying meaning then they are at relating facts.) In his letter to the church in Ephesus, St. Paul left us three penetrating questions to consider in a post-Ascension world. These are the roots of today’s remembrance. St. Paul asked:
What is the hope to which we have been called?
What are the riches of his inheritance?
What is the greatness of his power?
These questions really get to the heart of why we are Christian. Not just worshipers of God, but lovers of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the fullness of the Trinity in its endless numbered days. Where do we begin with these questions, particularly with the “eyes of our hearts enlightened”? Well if I had an hour to preach, I could get through all three this morning. You all game? It couldn’t be longer than last week’s Mass…
These questions are so important that we are going to pray on them for the next couple of Sundays. Next Sunday is Whitsunday, the day of Pentecost, and the theme of the riches of his inheritance dovetails well into that great Solemnity. And then we are on to the greatness of His power, a fitting thread to follow through Trinity Sunday on the 3rd. All three questions are meant to be on our hearts as we transition from this Easter season to the long slow stretch of ordinary time that is before. So today we consider Hope.
What is the hope to which we have been called? This is a trickier question that it might seem. Hope is slippery. The tricky thing is that hope is not about specific things to come, specific outcomes in the future. That is not the proper definition of hope, at least not Christian hope. Christian hope is not about wishing. Christian hope is not about longing. Wishing and longing are grasping, clinging feelings. When we attach to some specific outcome we stray into the world of fantasy. “I so long to be rich!” “I so wish to get better!” “I need x, y or z.” Hope like this becomes a sin against hope, it becomes presumption, anticipated fulfillment (the other sin against hope being despair, anticipated failure). The future, assuming that it comes (which is an assumption; the future itself is an assumption), but nothing in the future, even a future itself, is guaranteed. The future is so totally out of our control, and dwelling on specific hoped for outcomes distracts us from the important work and even more important relationships we have before us in the present moment.
“It’ll all be better when we die, our future rewards are in heaven.” When my grandmother died, her pastor prayed over her body, “We are so glad you are dead, Helen, you are now with the Father where you have always longed to be.” I wanted to punch him in the nose. “Don’t you be glad that my grandmother is dead, she’s not,” I thought. This is the classic example of disordered attachments, of un-Christian hope. It is this specific form of hope, deferring work towards happiness or well-being (or justice) in the now in favor of future heavenly reward that led to Marx’s very correct and highly misunderstood critique of religion as “the opiate of the masses.” Improper hope distracts us from what we need to be and do in this world, right now. That pastor could have prayed much more rightly, “We hope Helen now rests in peace.” Or, “We hope her family can bear this loss and find joy in her memory.” Those are things to hope for. Hoping to be cured from a disease or recover from an injury is futile and unrealizable, but hoping in Christ that we have the courage and the will to live through whatever we face. Hoping for the inner strength to overcome adversity, for the patience to find solutions, now those are things to pray for. Those are things to hope in.
Proper Christian hope… I am going to quote a German theologian, Ferdinand Kersteins. He is Catholic and not particularly prominent, but bear with me, it’s good. He writes, “Freedom is the key to the new, to the coming of what never was before. History is played out between the freedom of God, the ground of all, and the freedom of man (sic). Christian hope fixes its gaze on the futurity which this play of freedom makes possible and not on a predetermined goal of a development. Hope looks to history that is to come.”
The key here is Christian hope’s focus not on some predetermined or presumptive outcome, that is attachment to a fantasy, but Christian hope focuses on the interplay of freedom that God has graced existence with. The freedom of God and our own distinctly human freedom engaged in an amazing, serendipitous, improvisational dance through the multidimensional stratum of existence… our hope is that the dance continues and that we abide in the dance, the process of the dance, the theodrama as one great Jesuit calls it, and not on the specific steps of that dance.
I am not a sports fan. No matter how long we end up living here in Eugene, I do not suspect that I will ever wear any Ducks gear. I am sorry, it is nothing personal. I spent most of my life in Boston, a fanatical sports city, and have never worn anything with even a Red Sox logo. That said, I was in divinity school in 2004 when the Red Sox won that first world series in 80 something years. Even I, the perpetual disdainer of popular culture, I felt the excitement and even watched two innings of one of the games. But truly, at divinity school, there was some debate about whether it was proper Christian hope to hope for one team to prevail over the other. (Well, in the pennant race at least, the question was about praying for the Red Sox to win because even I knew that the Yankees were on the side of darkness). A legendary old priest/professor in Cambridge, Ed Rodman, a rabid Red Sox fan and a wise and holy man, he answered the question for us. No, it was not OK to hope or pray for the Red Sox to win; rather, pray for the officials to make the play fair so that the contest may proceed as an interplay of the perfect freedom of God , humanity and the ground of being. (I think the subtext was that all things being equal, God’s thumb would be on the Red Sox’s side of the scale). But really, Christian hope lies in the desire truly in “all things being equal,” in equanimity, in balance and repose and peace.
As we say in the Mass, “In the fullness of time… bring us to that heavenly country where… we may enter the everlasting heritage of your sons and daughters…” Hope is all about in the fullness of time. We cannot even venture to guess what the fullness of time looks like or even really means, but our faith in hope is that it is going to work out in kairos, (does anyone know what kairos means?) …in God’s time. This is the fullness of time. Proper hope now, in the wake of Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension is that we fulfill our vocation, fulfill our special purpose, fulfill our obligations as baptized members of Christ’s body and allow ourselves to be led by God to where ever it is that God needs us.
So that is nice, this theological exploration of hope. Well thought through, and as I warned, rather technical if not inane. But, I truly believe it matters, because with hope rightly understood, the path to prayer is made more straight. Prayer, meditation, whatever you call it, that is where God intersects with the world definitively, particularly in a post-Ascension world. In prayer the eyes of our heart truly are enlightened. Who we are is exponentially more important than what we do. Prayer, hopeful prayer, is a path to realize who we truly are. We pray not for x to happen, or y to cease or z to change, but we pray for the courage to be who we truly are. We pray for the resilience to weather the storms. We pray for the wisdom to discern God’s will. We pray for the patience, the humility, the stillness inside to be an island of peace in a sea of discontent. Pray that you are a comfort for someone; pray for the ability to be a good friend; pray for the gift of prayer. And how do we pray? How do we hope to pray? Well, that is something that we are about to begin working on in earnest around here. Stay tuned. Be hopeful. AMEN