Sunday, June 05, 2011

The Seventh Sunday of Easter - Sunday after the Ascension



I'm not a particular fan of Salvador Dali, but I do love this vision of the Ascension. There are certain paradoxical qualities about it; Christ's arms are outstretched in a gesture of triumph, like Pavarotti after a climactic high note, and yet of course we are to notice that he is ascending in cruciform, that wonderful juxtaposition of triumph and tragedy at the intersection of the cross. Note how his body appears healthy, whole and strong, but the hands are tensed and the fingers are curled, as if in agony. And we mostly see the bottom of his feet, just what the "men of Galilee" who stood there gaping slack-jawed would have seen, but they do not bear the wounds of his execution. The world he leaves behind is a landscape of death; dark and dry. No trees, no lush green spaces, just a few brown buildings in a dark grey world under gathering black clouds. It's just an astonishing painting.

This morning I visited St Barnabas parish in McMinnville, a good hour from home -- but a very pleasant drive through the most lush and green pastoral landscape imaginable, dotted with beautiful farm houses, fields and orchards -- because a close friend of mine, an aspirant for holy orders, was preaching. He had the unenviable task of not only addressing the Ascension but also the mission and ministry of Integrity, the Episcopal Church's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender outreach and advocacy organization, in a rural congregation (which it appears was very well received).

He had an interesting metaphor for the Ascension, comparing it to being a child and learning to ride a bicycle with training wheels. One day the father decides that it's time for the training wheels to come off. The child may not be ready; indeed, it may be very frightening, but the father knows this push has to be made. The father also does not turn his back and leave the child to chance, but walks or runs alongside, there to tip us back to center or pick us up if we fall over all together, until we are really ready to ride off on our own. Ascension Day is the training wheels coming off. We're still a little wobbly, but the time has come. Jesus taught us what we need to know, it's our job now to develop the skills and the confidence to ride out into the world. But we haven't been abandoned; the Holy Spirit is right there, running alongside us, encouraging us, teaching us, and ready if we fall.

I enjoyed the visit to St Barnabas very much. It was very different than my home parish in some ways, and I thought maybe I ought to make more of an effort to visit other churches. Not because I am unhappy where I am, but because I think for my own prayer disciplines it's good to expose myself to different ways of approaching worship. I am grateful that the Episcopal Church accommodates so many styles.

Recently I've been in one of those places where keeping the Daily Office has seemed more of a chore than a joy, and while I'm supposed to be focusing on my devotion, my mind wanders off to all manner of things. Last night's study of St Kevin, however, sparked my imagination and I have continued to ponder him today. I am drawn to his passion for and friendship with all kinds of animals, and his frequent desire to retire in solitude to the wilderness to pray. I wish I could find a nice place in the woods somewhere where I could go on regular, affordable retreats.

I am a big fan of the Portland-based women's vocal ensemble In Mulieribus, who specialize in medieval and renaissance polyphony. Tonight they gave a concert at St Stephen's RC church in SE Portland called Legenda Aurea, based on the medieval book of that name about the lives and legends of the saints. I almost didn't make it; I woke up from my nap late and hadn't eaten, but I managed to cook dinner, shower and get dressed all in about 45 minutes and flew out the door, arriving with about five minutes to spare at the concert. I am glad I made the effort. The music was so transcendant, I could not wait to come home and have my own private evening devotions with recordings of sacred music. I had originally planned to stop at a bar on the way home and see what was going on, but decided to go straight back, light some candles and incense and pray.

For the evening hymn, I just put my playlist on shuffle until I landed on something that was appropriate, which rather ironically/coincidentally turned out to be Hildegard von Bingen's "Cum vox sanguinis," from her body of work meant for the Feast of St Ursula, which had been on tonight's program.

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