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Ascension is probably the festival of the church year that makes people most uncomfortable, because it's liable to involve you in sounding like you're discussing the premise for a science fiction story - if you ask 'where is the body of Christ now?', then it's not a question we can answer; you can say 'heaven', of course, but that comes down to saying 'I believe it's somewhere, but I don't actually understand anything about how or where'. Mechthild of Magdeburg saw a vision of the human Christ in the midst of the Trinity, which would make a lovely icon, but if you try to think about what that would be like, what it would feel like, then we're back in science fiction territory, with a whole lot of unanswerable questions about time, eternity, and what it means to be human. Which, if you have a certain type of mind and imagination, you can have hours of brain-melting fun trying to entangle, but in the end, the only answer is 'we can't know.'

And yet it's not an easily disposable, sightly embarassing extra. Because Christianity is not - though we're very good at forgetting this - a particularly spiritual religion. Creation matters, bodies matter. Bodies, indeed, are part of who we are. The Ascension, in reminding us that Christ, who is truly God and truly human remains human, remains flesh and blood as we are flesh and blood, reminds us that God will not abandon us; whatever heaven is, exactly, it does not mean the loss of our humanity (I am rather creeped out by the tendency to talk about the dead becoming 'angels', but that's by the way).

When I was a child, I couldn't understand why it was a festival; surely Jesus going away was sad? But it's not really about Christ going away, it's him going on ahead. The church, Christians throughout time and space, are not left alone and helpless, because of the coming of the Spirit, and because of Christ's presence in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.

I've been thinking a bit lately about research into the Historical Jesus, and how you often hear people finding it painful, because it removes what they thought Jesus was and replaces it with a sketchy, alien figure from a vastly different cultural context (though maybe not as different as we sometimes think). It has a fundamental problem, because the method requires you to bracket out the question of Christ's divinity. The portrait of the humanity we get may indeed be difficult for us to relate to, but it's only part of the story. Jesus told Mary Magdalen 'do not cling to me, for I have not yet gone up to the Father'; rather cryptic words, but perhaps they can be read in the context of the Ascension, the bit of the story that makes it clear that we have to think about Christ as fully divine and fully human, if we are going to be Christians at all. Perhaps we can only cling to Christ, who is both Jesus of Nazareth and the Word and Wisdom of God, if we know this part of the story. Otherwise we'd only get the Historical Jesus, if that, who may be tremendously interesting, but is not the fullness of God's truth.
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I like to think of this sort of story as imaginative theology, or possibly creative exegesis (which I've just realised sounds like a euphemism of the order of 'creative accounting', but isn't meant as such).

A story for the season; the title, incidentally, is from a poem by C.S. Lewis on the Incarnation.

2651 words.

Summary: John had always been Jesus' best friend, which meant John found it rather less easy than the others to get used to the Risen Lord. A conversation, between Easter and Ascension.

How on earth could you be best friends with the Lord God of Israel? )
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A prayer of William of St Thierry to the Trinity, used to close his De Contemplatione, as translated by Bernard McGinn (The Growth of Mysticism, 272).

You, therefore, God the Father, by whom we live as Creator,
You, Wisdom of the Father, through whom we have been reformed and love wisely,
You, Holy Spirit, loving whom and in whom we live happily, and will live in total happiness,
Trinity of one substance, One God from whom we are, through whom we are, in whom we are...,
The Principle to which we are returning,
The Form we are following,
The Grace reconciling us,
We adore and bless.
To you be glory forever. Amen.
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Have been reading Rowan Williams' The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ, which is very good - quietly thought-provoking. Thus far, I've only read the chapter on the icon of the Transfiguration, because although it's a short book, it's the kind one wishes to read slowly and meditate on.

Williams is talking about the icon of the Transfiguration (such as this Russian example)

As we look at Jesus transfigured, God revealed in a human life: "We must be prepared to be mentally and spiritually flung backwards, baffled in finding words for this, even fearful at the prospect of discipleship it puts before us. But it is the one vision that allows us to see everything in our experience as open to God - so that we need not fear that God is bound to disappear if we encounter this or that situation, that it is impossible to stay with God in times of failure, pain or self-doubt. That is not a glib reassurance but a sober statement of what's implied in recognizing the glory of God in Jesus.

"So as we look at this icon and let it shape our prayers and reflections, we can think first of that infinite hinterland that is the background, the inner dimension of Jesus' inner life. It doesn't stop being human in any sense: but it is a humanity which in every moment performs God's own life. When we see that, we see that every act or suffering of Jesus is part of the act of God, embraced freely in God's journey towards us out of his depths. We can also think of how the shape of our own lives is finally going to be in God's hands, not ours: like Moses and Elijah, we don't know yet (in St John's words) what we shall be. Out time, our stories about ourselves, are but the best we can do from where we stand and look; but God's perspective can do strange things with history, and we are not the best judges of our own lives, what really matters to God, what shows God to the world. But we are given a glimpse of what God can do in this rare moment of direct vision, when the 'door of perception' is opened by and in Jesus, and the end of the world is there fleetingly before us. And finally, we can let ourselves contemplate the fact that the divine freedom shown us in this vision tells us both that there is no escape from the world in which we have been placed as creatures and that there is nowhere from which God can finally be exiled."
anchorhold: (Julian of Norwich)
Most holy God, the ground of our beseeching,
who through your servant Julian
revealed the wonders of your love:
grant that as we are created in your nature
and restored by your grace,
our wills may be so made one with yours
that we may come to see you face to face
and gaze on you for ever;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.


Another collect where the liturgist has been having fun and/ or showing off...

Below the cut, my sermon. )


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