Thursday, 13 May 2021

Is God revealed in space as
we reach out to the universe?

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

Patrick Comerford

Thursday 13 May 2021,
The Ascension Day


11 am: The Festal Eucharist,

Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton

Readings: Acts 1: 1-11; Psalm 47; Luke 24: 44-53

There is a link to the readings HERE

Salvador Dali: The Ascension (1958)

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

The astronaut Michael Collins died last month (28 April 2021) at the age of 90.

By then, many people had forgotten the name of Michael Collins. While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were walking on the moon on 20 July 1969, Michael Collins became the most solitary person in the universe, orbiting the moon alone, inside Apollo 11 and out of touch with ground control 240,000 miles away.

Michael Collins was born in Rome in 1930 while his father, General James Collins, was based in the Italian capital.

Because he was not born in an American town or city, when Michael Collins returned to the earth, without ever walking on the moon, there was no hometown parade in any American town to honour him.

But by then Collins was used to being on his own – in space or on earth. Collins later recalled his first space mission on Gemini 10 in 1966, and how he spent almost an hour and a half on spacewalks, once ‘gliding across the world in total silence, with absolute smoothness; a motion of stately grace which makes me feel God-like as I stand erect in my sideways chariot, cruising the night sky.’

Today, on Ascension Day, one of the 12 great feasts of the Church, celebrated on the 40th day of Easter, we remember Christ being taken up, ascending into his glory, and completing 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.

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. 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. But 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, 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.

Or is there, instead, a holier vision, glimpsed by Michael Collins, of God caring for the universe?

I think again of Michael Collins ‘gliding across the world in total silence, with absolute smoothness; a motion of stately grace which makes me feel God-like as I stand erect in my sideways chariot, cruising the night sky.’

During a radio blackout during that space mission, Buzz Aldrin would recall, ‘I read the words which I had chosen to indicate our trust that as man probes into space we are in fact acting in Christ. I sensed especially strongly my unity with our church back home, and with the church everywhere. I read: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me”.’ (John 15: 5).

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 any 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.

And yet, as the astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders entered into a lunar orbit on Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve 1968, they took part in a live television broadcast, showing pictures of the Earth and the moon as seen from their spacecraft.

They ended the broadcast with William Anders saying, ‘For all the people on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send you.’

They then took turns in reading from the Book of Genesis, beginning with ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ and concluding with ‘and God saw that it was good.’

Frank Borman concluded, ‘God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.’

Less than a year later. returning from that first landing on the moon, Buzz Aldrin took part in a television broadcast the night before splashing down. During the broadcast, the second man to set foot on the moon read Psalm 8: 3-4: ‘When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou has ordained; What is man that thou art mindful of him? And the Son of Man, that thou visitest him?’

As Buzz Aldrin pointed out, God reveals himself in space as humanity reaches out to the universe. ‘There are many of us in the NASA programme who do trust that what we are doing is part of God’s eternal plan for man.’

Michael Collins was from an Irish family and was raised an Episcopalian. In his prayers in Washington National Cathedral at the memorial service for his colleague Neil Armstrong in 2012, Michael Collins thanked God for his friend and colleague ‘who with courage and humility first set foot upon the moon.’

And he prayed: ‘Following his example, save us from arrogance, lest we forget that our achievements are grounded in you.’

Having witnessed the earth from afar, he became a serious and active advocate of ecology, spending time and energy on trying to save the world. He described himself as a perpetual optimist.

The Ascension is a divine promise that those of us who are perpetual optimists have not misplaced that optimism. When we consider God’s works in the heavens, the work of his hands in the moon and the stars, as Buzz Aldrin said, ‘we are in fact acting in Christ.’

And, when we contemplate the majesty of God’s work in the universe, we may think to join in that prayer of Michael Collins, ‘save us from arrogance, lest we forget that our achievements are grounded in you.’

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


The Ascension depicted in a window in Holy Trinity Abbey Church, Adare, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Acts 1: 1-1:

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

Luke 24: 44-53 (NRSVA):

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 Ascension (1885) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, a Pre-Raphaelite window in Saint Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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 in Southwark (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hymns:

259, Christ triumphant, ever reigning (CD 16);
634, Love divine, all loves excelling (CD 36).



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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