Saturday, May 14, 2016

Fix your minds on the things that are above

We will go down fighting, I was about to say. But actually we are not going down, we are going up. We are progressing. In the long run, we win though we may have to go through the agony in the garden, the cross itself, to get to the ascension, to receive the Holy Spirit.
 - Dorothy Day, On Pilgrimage - October 1958
Ascension of Christ, Garofolo, 1510s.
We “celebrated” the Feast of the Ascension last Sunday, though I didn't sense much celebration in the air. At mass, the priest greeted us with the words, “Joyful, joyful!” and a huge grin, reminding us that we are celebrating the Easter season. But then his homily centered on the sadness the disciples must have felt after Jesus’s final “goodbye” and the difficulty of major transitions in our own lives. I have also heard many similar homilies explaining that the Ascension is fundamentally about Jesus's absence, about patiently waiting until he “comes again.” Is the Ascension, then, merely something we begrudgingly accept is good for us somehow--akin to “Good Friday”--something we shouldn’t expect to inspire genuine celebration?

Though it may seem that way to us, it was understood very differently by the early Christians, according to the Catholic theologian James Alison (in his book Raising Abel: The recovery of the eschatological imagination):
This can be seen in passages like Romans 8:34Ephesians 1:20Hebrews 1:3,13; and 1 Peter 3:22. We are talking about something which was evidently imbued with great significance for the apostolic witnesses to the life and resurrection of Jesus: the happening which we describe when, while professing our faith, we say, "He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God." ... Is that happening in any way significant to us? ... Insofar as it gets talked about at all it appears as a somewhat apologetic loose end to the resurrection stories, as if it were a slightly shameful way of explaining why Jesus is no longer to be found, at least in this form…
However, it seems to have a special importance in the apostolic witness; in fact, in [Colossians 3:2] it seems to be the sine qua non by which Christians understand who we are, as well as being a principle of action. If this is the case, then we are talking about some lost understanding, something that was quite clear for the apostolic witnesses, but which has become so opaque for us that we don't even realize that we're missing out on something...
Alison translates Colossians 3:2 as: “Fix your minds on the things that are above, and not on the things of earth.” In recent days, my mind has been fixed most often on the things of earth to do with Donald Trump, as I suspect is true for many others, perhaps contributing to the gloominess I perceived on Sunday. Even as I write this, it is only with effort that I am able to resist checking the latest Trump news, although there is almost surely nothing new since I last checked an hour ago. So embarrassing--that is not the state of mind I want to be in. Especially now, in the face of all the suffering and vicious cycles in the world and our city, not to mention my sick children and overworked wife, I want to be alive with hope and able to envision the new creation Jesus is bringing about.

Stoning of Saint Stephen, altarpiece
of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice,
by Jacopo & Domenico Tintoretto
I want to have the mind of St. Stephen, who, in a situation much more dire than I will ever face personally, "being full of the Holy Spirit, fixed his gaze on heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said: Behold I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God." As he was being stoned to death immediately thereafter, Stephen was able to follow Jesus to an extraordinary degree. He gave up his spirit peacefully and even prayed out loud that God forgive his misguided murderers. The subsequent conversion of just one of those who participated in Stephen's murder, Saul, would go on to transform history.

As best as I can understand (with the help of James Alison's book, a longer excerpt of which is available here), Jesus's ascension to the right hand of God is the sign of his definitive victory, initiating the creation of a new reality on earth as in heaven. A victim of the most shameful failure and death imaginable--a supposed messiah publicly tortured and killed at the request of all the people--is now in the most glorious and exalted place imaginable. As we fix our minds on that, we too can receive the spirit that animated Jesus, the power to act creatively as if death and failure were nothing, and to free others weighed down by shame or consumed by resentment.

Dorothy Day wrote of the ascension (at the top of this post) in reference to being evicted from her New York City houses of hospitality, the city having seized their property by eminent domain. I can only imagine how angry I would feel, and how overwhelmed by the pressure of finding a new way to provide for the dozens of people who had come to rely on her for shelter. She, however, had the grace to write:
We are not at all cheerless and can see quite a few ways out. For one thing we don’t want to borrow money from the city at six per cent interest (our own money, remember, remember!) We know that it is going to take some time to collect from the city the cost of our house and the money we put in for repairs. There is not going to be enough money to buy a house and repair it, as far as we can see, unless St. Joseph wants it that way and sends us the money through the Appeal which also has to take care of all our current bills for our household of over a hundred people. 
Dorothy Day in 1959 (photo by Jim Forest)
So what are the alternatives? We can rent a loft for our office, and for a sitting-around place for everyone. WE can feed them there. We can rent a floor of a hotel for our men and find an apartment for our women nearby. We can still give out clothes, we can still feed the hungry. And all this without any too great outlay of money all at once. We can stall along this way for a year until we find a place suitable and one which the city will accept as suitable and give us a certificate of occupancy for.
The creative, unhurried, and unafraid spirit of Jesus was clearly evident in her. Through her participation in the Eucharist each morning (among many other things, of course), she concretely experienced the crucified and risen Jesus offering himself for her and for all. Let's pray that our hearts may also see Jesus in his glory as Stephen and Dorothy knew him and so joyfully receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit that empowered them. As just one specific way towards that, you could try this prayer of praise composed by St. Francis of Assisi, which he prayed several times a day with his brothers: The Praises to be said at all the Hours

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