The Ascension is the Enthronement of Imagination

ascension

Today is the Solemnity of the Ascension of Our Lord. Having risen from the grave, Christ must now rise to the right hand of his father. St. Augustine says, “Let our hearts ascend with him,” meaning that just as Jesus brought us with him out of the grave and into the sacramental life, so too does he bring us with him to heaven in the Ascension.

Christ is our Head. We are the Body. We are connected still, and where he is we are also. The Ascension is a fellowship and what happens at the altar during the Mass, quite literally, is an ascension. It’s tempting to think that when the bread is consecrated, Our Lord comes down from heaven into the host. That picture is actually backwards. What happens is the Host becomes a gateway to heaven and when we encounter the Real Presence of Jesus, it is because we are drawn up into heaven to his presence.

If you’re a church nerd like me, it’s kind of interesting to think about the metaphysics of transubstantiation, but what does it really mean for our lives to say that we are lifted up to the Lord?

Well, first it means that God is far different than his detractors suppose.

He is not, as some might allege, angry at his creation. He is not out to get us, not looking to reject the unrighteous or declare us inferior. God, for some reason that I cannot fathom, notices us and desires the best for us. It’s kind of a mystery, if you think about it, why God loves us so – but he does – he takes on human flesh, he makes the body sacred, he has a mother and a father, he has friends. God cries, and worries his mother, and feels lonely in the abandonment of Gethsemane. I don’t know, maybe as a kid he had a dirt-bike like I had and built a ramp for it and bloodied his nose. The point is, God is right here in the midst of it with us. Everything you care about, he cares about: your children, your family, your hobbies, your job, what keeps you awake at night, everything.

This is the second reason the Ascension is really important. When Jesus ascends to Heaven, he takes us and everything we care about and enthrones us with him.

People all the time want to talk to me about how they’ve rejected God. It’s weird, they see a priest and just cannot wait to inform him that they’ve evaluated and dismissed everything he holds dear. I think they just want to talk and don’t know how to start, but they may as well hand me a note that says in all capital letters, “YOUR LIFE IS A LIE.” The problem is, when these people begin to describe to me the God that they don’t believe in, I’m not actually familiar with that God. Reject God if you want, but you should actually know what you’re rejecting, not just some distant, demanding patriarch, but the spark of divinity that makes every single thing in this world so amazing.

Here’s a secret that non-Church-goers and adherents of a secular, Godless society don’t want you to know. The kind of life they seek and desire in the end turns out to be really, really boring. We saw that just this past week with the big fashion show in New York where all the celebrities wore Church-themed outfits. A lot of Christians were offended when they saw the pictures, and I can certainly see why. It made me angry too, mostly, though, because the clothes were so boring. Without the spark, without the Christian imagination and the sacramental outlook on life that maybe, just around the corner is a love so dangerous and white-hot that it will burn you if you get too close and we only see it by the shadow of its flame. Without that, all those deeply intriguing symbols of faith, the Cross, the Papal miter, images of the blessed Virgin and saints, all of it was emptied of excitement and became bland. If you’re a designer and all you can think to do with the regalia of the Pope to make it exciting and dangerous is to show more body parts, your imagination is dead. Take a simple counter example, the papal robes of John Paul II. They’re fanciful and odd, and not at all a costume. They are the sign of the spiritual power of St. Peter. John Paul wore those clothes when he stared down bloodthirsty communists, when he offered mass for a million people, when he knelt before the Blessed Sacrament, when he blessed the people of Rome as he was dying. The Catholic imagination is far more daring than anything else out there. Take, for instance, the angel costume on one starlet. It was risque and had big wings and seemed dramatic, but compare it with Ezekiel’s description of a real angel, wheels upon wheels of fire, covered head to toe in eyes, hovering in place but seemingly always on the move, so powerful that human words fail to describe it. Nice try Hollywood, but your imagination isn’t nearly as adventurous as that of the Church.

This is the third reason the Ascension is important. Through it God redeems our imagination.

Because God has returned to Heaven and prepares a place for us, we are able to live in hope and to dream. CS Lewis once said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I can see it, but because, by it, I can see everything else.” In other words, when we internalize the heart of religion and begin to see the way that God sees, suddenly the world shifts into focus, and what we see is endlessly fascinating. This is why G.K. Chesterton says that the imagination makes facts into wonders. Secularism, on the other hand, imposes a mechanized view of the world. Everything is functional, everything is practical, everything is physical, and nothing is a mystery. This is not wisdom, it is the impoverishment of the imagination.

Sometimes this functional attitude creeps into the Church. For instance, I might arrive here thinking that the purpose of the Mass is to see what I can get out of it. The function of the mass is to give me self-help type advice, or to give me a certain feeling. In fact, our worship isn’t about what Jesus offers us, although he does indeed offer us infinite riches. Our worship is about encountering the splendor of God, seeing him in all his glory and giving him the adoration that he deserves. For this, we need the imagination. All of the sensible things that Catholicism is so good at, strange but beautiful garments on the priests, singing, visual arts, incense, architecture, this is all instructive. Plato is helpful on this point when he writes about how Socrates learns from a little old lady the value of imaginative, sensible beauty and how through it we ascend to the realm of eternal reality.

Kids are good at this, by the way. Observe how they watch during Mass, the types of questions they’re asking, the way I can invite them to trace the letters in the Gospel book and they’re wide-eyed and eager to do so. These things excite their imagination and are formative in their ability to encounter God.

We adults must also continue to form our imaginations. St. Edith Stein says that we ought to think of ourselves like plants. With a plant, there is organic growth which does not, “come about wholly from within: there are also exterior influences which work together to determine its formation . . . just so, in the soul’s formation, exterior factors as well as interior ones, play a role.”

So now do we see why God takes a human body and ascends to heaven? Here are our three points again: 1) God is with us entirely, 2) we ascend with him, and 3) he is the fulfillment of our imagination. He loves us so much, and he made all of this for us. We aren’t meant to be bored here on earth, we’re meant to be endlessly amazed, and through this world that he is redeeming right along with us we are lifted up as Heaven unfolds before our eyes.

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The flowers of Mary

31948888_10209607900269054_8708668245638381568_nMay is a month to celebrate and honor our Mother Mary. This is because it’s the month when the flowers in our gardens begin to bloom in earnest. As new life springs forth, it’s natural to make the connection to motherhood. Mary is not only the mother of Our Lord, but the Mother of all creation. Flowers are a wonderful sign of the beauty of our relationship to her.

There’s a long tradition of honoring Mary with flowers, and the medieval writer, Chaucer, writes that Mary is the “Flower of flowers.” That tradition is alive and well today. For instance, Pope Francis has a habit of bringing her a bouquet when he visits a Church for the first time. He is one of many who, over the years, have done so, and I notice that here at Epiphany flowers often mysteriously appear at her statue. The practice of bringing her flowers is so common, in fact, that these bouquets used to have a proper name, “Assumption Bundles,” because they were often gifted to her to celebrate the day she joined Jesus in Heaven.

This is the background to the May Crowning, in which a crown of flowers is placed upon the brow of Our Lady. We’re having ours here at Epiphany this weekend.

You probably know a number of Marian hymns, and in them it isn’t unusual that she is described as the purest, most beautiful flower. In visual art, Mary is also compared to a flower and is often depicted either holding a flower or with flowers nearby. Because of this connection, over the centuries countless flowers have been named in her honor and symbolize aspects of her motherhood. I truly do mean “countless.” If I started listing them all, it would take a long time.

Here are a few, though, if you’re interested:

Impatiens is known as Our Lady’s Earring because Mary heard the word of God and responded.

Roses and Lilies are connected to her through the ancient prophecy, “I am the rose of Sharon, a lily of the valley,” and roses and lilies were both found in her empty tomb after her Assumption to Heaven. St. Bede saw the translucent petal of a lily as a symbol for her soul, and it is fitting that a variety of white day-lily tends to bloom during the time of the feast of the Assumption

Violets, which are in bloom right now, bring to mind a reference from St. Bernard who says Mary is “the violet of humility.”

There are a number of flowers simply named in her honor such as Our Lady’s Slipper, named for her visit to her cousin Elizabeth in the hill country. Our Lady’s Mantle, Our Lady’s Tresses, Our Lady’s Tears, and Our Lady’s Milk Drops…the list goes on.

Milk Thistle, believe it or not, is literally named “Mary” in the Latin classification: Silybum Marianum

Marygolds symbolize Mary’s glory and place in heaven with the saints.

Irises, which are starting to bloom right now, are also called “Fleur de Lis” or “Sword lilies.” The iris symbolizes Mary’s sorrow and the sword that pierces her heart at the fate of her Son.

For those who are serious gardeners, you can combine any of these flowers into a Mary Garden, which is a serene, natural place to calm the soul and honor Our Lady. And of course, all of the beauty of flowers brings to mind Paradise and the Garden of Eden. This is why we keep flowers in Church as much as possible, because this is a heavenly reality we inhabit here.

I find it interesting that even though Our Lady is the Queen of Heaven, we don’t crown her with gold and jewels. Instead we use flowers. It’s like when a small child picks a dandelion in the yard and brings it in to mom. Flowers are the treasures that children bring to their mothers. Motherhood is sacred, and it is beautiful, and without it we do not have the Incarnation, we do not have Jesus.

Pope Benedict, in his letter “God is Love,” writes, “Mary is a woman who loves.” This is her gift to us, and this is the gift of motherhood. We love her and she loves us. Sometimes God can seem very distant. He’s an old man with a massive gray beard. He is an avenging judge. That’s not the whole of the picture and God is also gentle and very present in our souls, but it can seem that way, and when we do feel distant from God, it helps to remember that he has a mother and that she is our mother, too. We can offer her something beautiful, even if it’s just a weed from the yard and, as mothers do, she will place it in a vase in the center of the dining room table and act like we just brought her the greatest thing in the world.

This is the heart of it, we bring our gifts, as poor as they are, and our devotion is met with absolute, total acceptance. When we place our own lives as gifts upon the altar, Mary gathers us up like a bouquet and presents us to God as the most beautiful gift that could possibly be given. In that grace-filled action we come to understand we are never far from God, and that he cherishes us more than we could ever imagine.

Perhaps it is the weak who are actually strong

alfieevans35

To historians, the expansion of the early Church is a bit of a mystery. How, in the face of overwhelming persecution, peer pressure, and social isolation, did the Church not only survive but actually overcome the Roman Empire? The Empire had legions, and a will to power, and a violent aggression that was completely unchecked by morality. During their entertainments, a losing gladiator would bleed out on the sand while 50,000 fans cheered and the victor gloated, and if you doubt how violent it really was, St. Augustine went once to watch and afterwards knew he had committed a horrible sin. He includes it in his Confessions about mistakes he had made. Roman women would, without shame, expose newborn babies in the wilderness to die. There was a plant that grew in Libya called Silphium that when ingested would poison a baby in the womb. Silphium is now extinct because the Romans used all of it. Slaves were sentenced to death by working in the copper mine or as rowers chained up in the bowels of Roman ships. They were used as objects and thrown away.

You can see why the ruling class of Roman society would have hated the Church. The world created by the Romans was based on power and pleasure, but even though those vices sound good in the beginning they are intensely dehumanizing. Here come St. Peter and St. Paul, both talking about how God made us to be happy, and virtue is more valuable than power, and that God loves slaves, and women, and widows. God loves the poor, the crippled, the prisoners. In other words, God loves not only the entire concept of humanity. He loves you, exactly as you are.

Christianity is the Word of Life that destroys class structure, racism, and tyranny. This is why the Church grew; not because of clever marketing, or cooperating with the government, or warfare. The Church offers a human way of life. We see this in the very structure of the way God chooses to save us from sin. He takes a human body, not as a shell for his spirit to inhabit, but for the flesh to become really, truly part of himself. Jesus is incarnated. He is not a religious idea. He is a person. And yet he is God, the bridge between human and divine, and through him the human body is revealed to be sacred.

Christianity requires faith, yes, but it isn’t blind faith. It’s built on reasonable concepts, among them the commitment to the dignity of all persons as a human right. It’s funny, the Church is mocked for being unreasonable, but it’s actually the world that is unreasonable. We see it in the way that the Roman Empire ran on pure power and violence…not reasonable decisions about creating an equitable, free society.

Jesus is the example for us of how our reasonable faith must find expression in the physical realm, it must become incarnate. The Word has become flesh and we live by the way we think. St. John writes, “Let us love not in word or speech, but in deed and truth.” In other words, put flesh and bones into your love and make it real.

This is where theology of the body comes from. What we do with our bodies and how we treat the bodies of others really matters, because salvation is not a purely spiritual escape to heaven. Our Lord is redeeming the entirety of the physical world and our resurrection will be physical.

It’s easy to talk about theology of the body when it’s about the beauty of the marital relationship, having beautiful little babies, eating well, exercising, that sort of thing, but there’s another side to it.

I recently read an article on the website Mama Needs Coffee (amen), and a mother writes about how pregnancies have wrecked her body and she is struggling physically with the burden of motherhood, about how she doesn’t like her image in the mirror. We could come up with more examples of less than perfect bodies. How about when we get older and become frail. How about those who are chronically sick, or losing their memory, or those who are developmentally delayed? Are those persons important, even though their bodies are less than perfect? The world likes strong bodies, healthy bodies, athletes and movie stars, but as soon as that body passes some arbitrary line wherein it becomes a burden to society it becomes disposable or a source of shame.

We’re seeing this right now with Alfie Evans, a little boy in England who has a neurological disorder – you may have seen this in the news – Taking away all parental rights, the hospital and government have decided to starve him to death because he’s a burden. Pope Francis is begging to let the little boy come to Rome where the Vatican hospital will take care of him. The boy’s father and mother are frantic. They know their boy, they know his value, how much he is loved. This is theology of the body. That little boy, that mother who knows she has sacrificed her youth for her children, consider how they are the purest imitation of Christ, his battered body hanging from the Cross, a sacrifice of love. His body, your body. They are connected.

Who is worth saving? Alfie Evans? Is there a reason that children with Down Syndrome are no longer being given a chance to be born even though they’re among the happiest, sweetest human beings I’ve ever met? Is there a reason that certain older people are denied treatment because their lives are not considered valuable anymore? When we reject the Cross, we reject humanity, and that is so sad.

It isn’t simply that we are supposed to be such good people that we are willing to tolerate the less fortunate. The point is, we don’t know how to make that judgment, only God does. God says everyone is worth saving, and if that’s the case, then every life has value, a way in which they make the world better. There’s a documentary out right now about L’Arche, which is a place where people with disabilities live together in community. One reviewer says shows a series of “encounters to be unveiling a great secret of life: the mysterious pull of being itself toward love. Even the simplest moments—a picnic in a sun-lit field, residents feeding one another around a table, a stroll through the woods—draw both the residents and caretakers into a pattern of giving, of sharing, of willing another’s good. Presence draws L’Arche into love, and love into the joy of the present, offering a kind of foretaste of the rhythm of heaven.”

Perhaps it is the weak who are actually strong.

St. Teresa of Avila says, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.”

“I am the Vine and you are the branches,” says Our Lord. We all belong to each other, members of the same flowering, vital, life giving Body of Christ. We don’t throw each other to the lions. We care for the weakest among us, no matter what anyone else says, and in fact this is how we conquer the world. We know that this is how human beings treat each other. The very God of the universe shows this to be true, and his Body broken for us proves that in the weakness of love, he is the strongest of all.

Freedom is not what you think

St Augustine in esctasy

Year B Easter 3

In Henry VI, Shakespeare writes, “Ignorance is the curse of God; knowledge is the wing
wherewith we fly to heaven.” Ignorance and the refusal to modify an opinion can, in fact, lead to a 100 year long war, at least that’s what King Henry teaches us.

In medieval theology there was a long-running debate over which was more important: knowledge or love. Of course, we know that love is the greatest of the virtues and without it we are nothing. I could be a walking, breathing encyclopedia of theology but if it’s all up here in my head only, I won’t be a saint. The debate was more subtle than that, though, it was about which we must acquire first, or which leads to the other. Does knowledge come first or does love? Must we think first, or act first? St. Bonaventure and the Franciscans argued that it was an act of the will, it is our decision to love, that was most important, but St. Thomas Aquinas and the Dominicans said otherwise. In the end, Aquinas was correct. The summary of his teaching is this – you cannot love what you do not know.

If you don’t know any better, you can go out and love all the wrong things. When I was a teenager I died my hair blond and had an eyebrow ring, and I loved how I looked. I could love all my vices and not know any better. Shakespeare subtly makes this point himself in the play Romeo and Juliet. Those two knew nothing, absolutely nothing. They were, like, 13 years old, fell madly in love, and ended up more or less ruining their lives because they had no clue what that love meant or how to positively direct their feelings.

St. Peter explains to the people in the Temple that, in their ignorance, they helped murder the Son of God. They freed a murderer instead. And they did all this thinking that they were doing good because they didn’t know any better. This is the extent to which ignorance can lead us astray.

There’s an interesting passage in the Catechism that says, “Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened…the education of conscience is indispensable.” Each of us has a conscience, but we are not infallible and our own judgments can and do go astray. This means that we have a duty to ourselves to feed our minds, to keep learning, to struggle with Church teaching that seems difficult, because we want our minds to have all the material they need to make wise decisions. We want to love the right sorts of things.

St. Paul, in his letter, is desperate that we not sin! He says that helping us form our consciences is the very reason he is writing. This is the job, too, of the priest as a spiritual father, to tell you the difficult truths, not so the priest can judge you – because God knows I’m a sinner too – but for precisely the opposite reason. Your faith is yours alone, and you deserve all of the information available so you can best love God. Personally, I tend to shy away from controversy, so I probably let you down to some extent, here, but if I never talk about abortion, or marriage, or immigration, or even smaller things like eating meat on Fridays or how we receive communion, I’m failing you.

In his ministry, Our Lord speaks difficult truths. He talks about sin and the final judgment and hell. He opens up the scriptures with his disciples and helps them to gain knowledge about what is contained in them. He helps them to understand what their duty is to God and their fellow human beings.

Parents, this is also your duty to your children. To teach them what it means to live a valuable, meaningful life, to discern right from wrong, how to rise up to the challenge of life and emerge victorious and independent, unafraid to stand up against the whole world if need be to defend what is good and noble and pure. This will at times cause your children to become angry with you, because the road less traveled is challenging. Don’t worry about it. They’ll get over it. In fact, they’ll thank you for it, because within the boundaries of the knowledge and teaching you provide them, there is great freedom.

This is the scourge of our times, the idea that freedom is the same thing as choosing whatever we want with no limitations. But look at our society right now, it follows this philosophy and it’s in ruins, because if we reject knowledge in favor of unfettered choice to do whatever we want – and a species of this is to claim I have my truth and you have yours, which is just code for I’ll do whatever I want – when we reject knowledge, then the people who talk loudest and carry the biggest stick will control us. The bullies take charge, the politicians, the global corporations. When we choose sin, we seem to have made a choice that isn’t available if we follow God’s commandments, but we don’t find freedom by doing so. We actually limit ourselves and become less than what we could be, because we have given a piece of ourselves over to a vice and have closed a piece of ourselves off from the infinite. All of the sudden, what seemed so liberating is revealed to be slavery.

So, it is not limiting to acknowledge sin, and it is not limiting to try to live a life guided by a conscience that is formed by the light of Church teaching. This is freedom, because now you can make up your own mind with all possible information, now you are free to love God.

We are witnesses of these things, that ignorance is not bliss, that to know and love God is the greatest, most life-giving opportunity offered to the human soul, the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.

Lord Jesus, open the Scriptures to us that we may know you.