Thursday, 21 May 2020

Reading TS Eliot in May, when
the hedges are white again
‘with voluptuary sweetness’

If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges / White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Today is Ascension Day, and for the next ten days in the Church Calendar we find ourselves in what I might describe as an ‘in-between time’ – these ten days that bring us from the Ascension to Pentecost.

I was writing three weeks ago [30 April 2020] how even people who are not familiar with the poetry of TS Eliot can quote his opening lines of ‘The Waste Land’:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.


‘The Waste Land’ is a masterpiece of modern literature and one of the greatest poems in the English language. Those opening lines are often quoted, even by people who have never read all five sections and 434 lines of the poem.

The opening stanzas of ‘The Waste Land’ refer to the blooming of flowers and the coming of spring, but in gloomy tones. Winter is recalled nostalgically, with snow keeping us warm. But still I asked last month April is indeed the cruellest month.

April and May are proving to be the cruellest months we know in this part of Europe, in the way Covid-19 continues to take a grip on our lives, creating in an ‘in-between time’ that forces us to keep artificial and unnatural distances from one another, leaving many of us isolated, and stealing the lives of so many people of all ages and backgrounds.

But if ‘The Waste Land’ is Eliot’s April poem, then ‘Little Gidding’ is his May poem, his Ascension Day poem, or, indeed, his Pentecost poem.

‘Little Gidding,’ the fourth and final poem in the Four Quartets, is TS Eliot’s own Pentecost poem, written after his visit to Little Gidding on this day, Thursday 21 May 1936, ten days before Pentecost that year (31 May 1936).

‘Now the hedgerow / Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

‘Little Gidding’ begins in ‘the dark time of the year,’ when a brief and glowing afternoon sun ‘flames the ice, on pond and ditches’ as it ‘stirs the dumb spirit’ not with wind but with ‘pentecostal fire.’

The poem opens with a description of the countryside in this time of year:

This is the spring time
But not in time’s covenant. Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable Zero summer?

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.


Eliot was aware that King Charles I had fled to Little Gidding during a crisis at the same time of the year, in May 1646:

It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king


Although the community fell apart after the death of its founder, Nicholas Ferrar, it has continued to attract pilgrims to this day, and Eliot addresses them in this poem when he writes:

… You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.


‘You are here to kneel / Where prayer has been valid’ … the chapel in Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘Little Gidding,’ which was published in September 1942, is Eliot’s last significant poem and one the greatest Christian poems of the last century. It is read by some as an extended sermon not only on all that is wrong in society, but what can be done about it.

Although Eliot visited Little Gidding long before the outbreak of World War II, the poem was read at its publication in the context of the destruction of English houses and churches – those ‘marred foundations’ of ‘sanctuary and choir’ – during the air raids and bombings. By 1942, many parts of England had seen houses, shops and whole streets destroyed by bombs.

Perhaps, today, ‘Little Gidding’ asks us once again whether we are being purged by the suffering of our age?

At the end of the poem, Eliot describes how the eternal is contained within the present and how history exists in a pattern. Drawing on the writings of the 14th century English mystic Julian of Norwich, he is assured:

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.


‘ … all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well’ (TS Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’) … sunset seen from the Sunset Taverna in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Following in Christ’s footsteps
on the Day of Ascension

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

Patrick Comerford

Thursday 21 May 2020,

Ascension Day


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

There is a link to the readings HERE

Christ the Pantocrator in the dome of Saint George’s Church in Panormos, east of Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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

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.

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, 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?

Standing there gaping at the sky could make us some kind of navel-gazers, looking for explanations within the universe and for life, but not as we know it. In our day and age, the idea of Christ flying up into the sky and vanishing through the great blue yonder strikes us as fanciful.

Does Jesus peek over the edge of the cloud as he is whisked away like Aladdin on a magic carpet?

Is he beamed up as if by Scotty?

Does he clench his right fist and take off like Superman?

Like the disciples, would we have been left on the mountain top looking up at his bare feet as they became smaller and smaller and smaller?

But the concept of an ascension was not one that posed difficulties in Christ’s earthly days. It is part of the tradition that God’s most important prophets were lifted up from the Earth rather than perish in the earth with death and burial.

Elijah and Enoch ascended into heaven. Elijah was taken away on a fiery chariot. Philo of Alexandria wrote that Moses also ascended. The cloud that Christ is taken up in reminds us of the shechinah – the presence of God in the cloud, for example, in the story of Moses receiving the law (Exodus 24: 15-17), or with the presence of God in the Tabernacle on the way to the Promised Land (see Exodus 40: 34-38).

Saint Luke makes a clear connection between the ascension of Moses and Elijah and the Ascension of Christ, when he makes clear links between the Transfiguration and the Ascension. At the Transfiguration, he records, a cloud descends and covers the mountain, and Moses and Elijah – who have both ascended – are heard speaking with Jesus about ‘his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem’ (Luke 9: 30-31).

So, Saint Luke links all these elements as symbols as he tells this story. There is a direct connection between the Transfiguration, the Ascension and the Second Coming … the shechinah is the parousia. However, like the disciples in this reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we often fail to make these connections. We are still left looking up at the feet … an enigma posed by Salvador Dali over 60 years ago in his painting, The Ascension (1958).

Let us just think of those feet for a moment.

In the Epistle reading, the Apostle Paul tells the Ephesians that with the Ascension the Father ‘has put all things under [Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things’ (Ephesians 1: 22).

‘Under his feet’ … Salvador Dali’s painting of the Ascension, with its depiction of the Ascension from the disciples’ perspective, places the whole of creation under Christ’s feet. Of course, Isaiah 52: 7 tells us: ‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns”.’

Feet are important to God. There are 229 references to feet in the Bible and another 100 for the word foot. When Moses stands before God on Mount Sinai, God tells him to take his sandals off his feet, for he is standing on ‘holy ground’ (Exodus 3: 5) – God calls for bare feet on the bare ground, God’s creation touching God’s creation.

Later, when the priests cross the Jordan into the Promised Land, carrying the ark of the Lord, the water stops when they put their feet down, and the people cross on dry land (Joshua 3: 12-17): walking in the footsteps of God, putting our feet where God wants us to, is taking the first steps in discipleship and towards the kingdom.

The disciples object when a woman washes and anoints Jesus’ feet and dries them with her hair, but he praises her faith (Luke 7: 36-50). On the night of his betrayal, the last and most important Christ Jesus does for his disciples is wash their feet (John 13: 3-12).

Footprints … many of us have learned off by heart or have a mug or a wall plaque with the words of the poem Footprints in the Sand. We long for a footprint of Jesus, an imprint that shows where he has been … and where we should be going. The place where the Ascension is said to have taken place is marked by a rock with what is claimed to be the footprint of Christ. And, as they continue gazing up, after his feet, the disciples are left wondering whether it is the time for the kingdom to come, are they too going to be raised up.

Yet it seems that the two men who stand in white robes beside them are reminding them Christ wants them not to stay there standing on their feet doing nothing, that he wants us to pay more attention to the footprints he left all over the Gospels. Christ’s feet took him to some surprising places – and he asks us to follow.

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?

Since that first Ascension Day, the body of Christ is within us and among us and through us as the Church and as we go forth in his name, bearing that Good News as his ‘witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1: 8).

Meanwhile, we are reminded by the two men in white: ‘This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’ (Acts 1: 11). Between now and then we are to keep in mind that the same Jesus is ‘with [us] always, to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28: 20).

The disciples who are left below are left not to ponder on what they have seen, but to prepare for Pentecost and to go out into the world as the lived Pentecost, as Christ’s hands and feet in the world, leaving behind us the footprints of Christ.

Saint Paul paraphrases Isaiah when he says: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ (Romans 10: 15). Our feet can look like Christ’s feet. Our feet can become his feet until he returns in glory once again (Acts 1: 11), when he returns exactly as he ascended. And we need to keep the tracks fresh so that others may follow us in word, deed, and sacrament, and follow him.

The disciples are sent back to Jerusalem not to be passive but to pray to God the Father and to wait for the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In time, the Holy Spirit will empower them, and they will be Christ’s witnesses not just in Judea and Samaria, but to the ends of the earth fulfilling that commission in Saint Matthew’s Gospel.

The disciples who are left below are left not to ponder on what they have seen, but to prepare for Pentecost and to go out into the world as the lived Pentecost, as Christ’s hands and feet in the world.

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

Salvador Dali: The Ascension (1958)

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.’

The Ascension depicted in an the Roman Catholic Cathedral Tuam, Co Galway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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.

The Collect of the Day:

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!

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

Hymns:

260, Christ is alive! Let Christians sing
259, Christ triumphant, ever reigning
634, Love divine, all loves excelling
693, Glory in the highest to the God of heaven

The Ascension (1885) … a window by Sir Edward Burne-Jones in the apse of Saint Philip's Cathedral, Birmingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible Anglicised Version, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

The hymns suggestions are provided in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling. The hymn numbers refer to the Church of Ireland’s Church Hymnal (5th edition, Oxford: OUP, 2000)

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

The Ascension depicted in a stained-glass window in Straffan Church, Co Kildare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Praying in Easter with USPG:
40, Thursday 21 May 2020,
Ascension Day

The Ascension depicted in frescoes in the dome inside the Daniel Pantanassa Church in the Ihlara Valley, Cappadocia, Turkey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today, 40 days after Easter Day, is Ascension Day. I had hoped to celebrate the Ascension Eucharist later this morning in one of the four churches in the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. But all our churches remain closed because of the restrictions imposed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, I am also continuing to use the USPG Prayer Diary, Pray with the World Church, for my morning prayers and reflections throughout this Season of Easter.

USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is the Anglican mission agency that partners churches and communities worldwide in God’s mission to enliven faith, strengthen relationships, unlock potential, and champion justice. It was founded in 1701.

Throughout this week (17 to 23 May 2020), the theme of the USPG Prayer Diary is ‘Ascension Day: Mystery and Infinity.’ The Rev’d Canon Richard Bartlett, Director of Mission Engagement at USPG, introduced this theme in the Prayer Diary on Sunday morning.

Thursday 21 May 2020 (Ascension Day):

Lord Jesus, may the mystery and wonder of your Ascension give us a fresh perspective in this time of uncertainty and worry.

The Readings:

Acts 1: 1-11 or Daniel 7: 9-14; Psalm 47 or Psalm 93; Ephesians 1: 15-23 or Acts 1: 1-11; Luke 24: 44-53.

The Collect of the Day:

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.

The 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.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow