Thursday, 30 May 2019

How the Moon Landing
50 years ago changed
our view of the Ascension

The Ascension Window in the North Transept (Jebb Chapel), Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Ascension Day, Thursday 30 May 2019:

11 a.m.: The Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton.

Readings: Acts 1: 1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1: 15-23; Luke 24: 44-53.

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Did you go to see the recent exhibition in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing?

We all know stories of elderly people who, half a century ago, refused to believe there had been a moon landing in 1969. They were the modern equivalent of ‘flat-earthers.’

But I remember sitting up to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the television on the night of 20/21 July 1969, and to hear Neil Armstrong’s words: ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’

It was a giant leap for humanity. We all became rocket scientists that night, because it changed our ideas of the shape of the universe, how we could travel through it, our understanding of the cosmos, and the place of our small planet in the universe.

Our view of the universe, our understanding of the cosmos, shapes how we image and think of God’s place in it, within it, above it, or alongside it. And, sometimes, the way past and outdated understandings of the universe were used to describe or explain the Ascension now make it difficult to talk about its significance and meaning to today’s scientific mind.

The Ascension is one of the 12 great feasts of the Church, coming 40 days after the Day of Easter. In the Orthodox Church, this day is the Analepsis, the ‘taking up,’ for by ascending into his glory Christ completed the work of our redemption.

On this day, we celebrate the completion of the work of our salvation, the pledge of our glorification with Christ, and his entry into heaven with our human nature glorified.

Today we celebrate the culmination of the Mystery of the Incarnation.

On this day we see the completion of Christ’s physical presence among his apostles and the consummation of the union of God and humanity, for on this day Christ ascends in his glorified human body to sit at the right hand of the Father.

The Ascension is the final visible sign of Christ’s two natures, divine and human, and it shows us that redeemed humanity now has a higher state than humanity had before the fall. That is the theological explanation, in a nutshell. By how do you image, imagine, the Ascension?

When we believed in a flat earth, it was easy to understand how Christ ascended into heaven, and how he then sat in the heavens, on a throne, on the right hand of the Father. But once we lost the notion of a flat earth as a way of explaining the world and the universe, we failed to adjust our images or approaches to the Ascension narrative.

Ever since, and especially after the moon landing, intelligent people have been left asking silly questions:

When Christ went up through the clouds, how long did he keep going?

When did he stop?

And where?

But the concept of an ascension was not one that posed difficulties in Christ’s earthly days. It is part of the tradition some of the prophets, Elijah and Enoch, were lifted up from the Earth before they died and were buried.

But Christ is not taken up to the Moon like some Biblical Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin. Our first reading tells us ‘he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight’ (Acts 1: 9).

In the Bible, the cloud is not a weather warning, but symbolises the presence of God: think of the ‘pillar of cloud’ that leads the freed slaves from Egypt through the wilderness into the Promised Land; how Moses climbs Mount Sinai to stand before the Lord, who descends in a cloud; the cloud that becomes a sign of God’s presence in the Temple in Jerusalem; or the cloud the covers the mountaintop at the Transfiguration.

As Dom Erik Varden of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey wrote in The Tablet last week [25 May 2019], ‘The cloud is glory. The glory is presence. It tells us that the Lord, the Father of all, is there.’

It is not that Christ vanishes beyond earth’s orbit, but that Christ enters the Father’s glory, which is set to fill the earth (see Numbers 14: 21).

So, where are we to see the Risen and Ascended Christ today?

Instead of keeping my head in the clouds, can I do what the disciples do immediately after the Ascension, as we hear in the Gospel reading?

They walk back into Jerusalem, the city. But this is also a journey into the New Jerusalem, which we have been reading about in our readings from the Book of Revelation these Sundays.

As we walk towards that New Jerusalem, as we hope for the New Heaven and the New Earth, can I see Christ’s footprints in the wilderness?

Can I see Christ walking on the wrong side of the street with the wrong sort of people?

Can I see Christ walking up to the tree, looking up at Zacchaeus in the branches (Luke 19: 1-10), and inviting him to eat with him?

Can I see his feet stumbling towards Calvary with a cross on his back, loving us to the very end?

Am I prepared to walk with him?

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Christ the Pantocrtator, or the Ascended Christ in the Dome of the Church of Analipsi (Church of the Ascension) in Georgioupoli, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Acts 1: 1-11

1 In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ 7 He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’

Luke 24: 44-53

44 Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’

50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

The ‘Museum of the Moon’ installation in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Liturgical resources:

Liturgical Colour: White, or Gold.

The Greeting (from Easter Day until Pentecost):

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Penitential Kyries:

God our Father,
you exalted your Son to sit at your right hand.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus,
you are the way, the truth and the life.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit, Counsellor,
you are sent to be with us for ever.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Collect:

Grant, we pray, Almighty God,
that as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ
to have ascended into the heavens;
so we in heart and mind may also ascend
and with him continually dwell;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Introduction to the Peace:

Jesus said, Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
I do not give to you as the world gives (John 14: 27, 28)

Preface:

Through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who after he had risen from the dead ascended into heaven,
where he is seated at your right hand to intercede for us
and to prepare a place for us in glory:

Post Communion Prayer:

God our Father,
you have raised our humanity in Christ
and have fed us with the bread of heaven.
Mercifully grant that, nourished with such spiritual blessings,
we may set our hearts in the heavenly places;
where he now lives and reigns for ever.

Blessing:

Christ our exalted King
pour on you his abundant gifts
make you faithful and strong to do his will
that you may reign with him in glory:

Dismissal: (from Easter Day to Pentecost):

Go in the peace of the Risen Christ. Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thanks be to God. Alleluia! Alleluia!

Hymns:

281, Rejoice, the Lord is King! (CD 17)
634, Love divine, all loves excelling (CD 36)

The Ascension depicted in the East Window by Marion Grant (1951) in the Church of Saint George the Martyr in Southwark (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

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