The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Easter 7—Year B; Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; I John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19
I love the liturgical calendar. I love the fact that we mark time just a little bit differently than the rest of the world. And all of the seasons and feasts and fasts that we mark help us hone in on a different aspect of our spirit and life.
Today, we are right in the middle of one the strangest periods of liturgical time that happens all year long. We are in the consummate in-between time. This past Thursday, was the Feast of the Ascension—that rather bizarre moment when we celebrate Jesus’ ascension to heaven—an event that leaves our very Enlightenment oriented left-brains absolutely befuddled. And down the rabbit hole we go—where did Jesus go? Where is heaven? What is up there beyond the sky? This often leaves us imagining the Wicked Witch of the East with shoes hanging out from under the house, except flipped vertical with two feet dangling from the clouds. Am I right???
But to our heart, that spiritual homing beacon that locks onto deep mysterious truths, a different scene unfolds. Not a flying up, up and away, but a moving out in every direction—down, up, within, beyond—a moving out throughout the whole cosmos—Jesus being set free from one incarnated, enfleshed existence in one specific historical time and place to exist in all things throughout all time throughout all space. Christ in all things. His fullness filling all things and immanently accessible. Think mystical, not logistical. It’s definitely a leave-taking—Jesus is not embodied in the same way that he was before the cross, or even since the resurrection up until his ascension. But it’s a leave-taking anticipating a something else.
So, we marked Ascension on Thursday. And a week from today, we will mark Pentecost—that feast when the Spirit whooshes in and sets hearts on fire and spirits blazing and tongues speaking deep wisdom that they didn’t even know they possessed. But today, today, we are in-between, and what do we make of that???
To understand where we are right now, we need a bigger frame for this whole paschal cycle of time, as Ron Rolheiser calls it. I’ve talked about this before, but some things are worth circling back to again and again and again. And this frame is the essence of the Jesus’ way, so here we go.
In his book The Holy Longing: The Search for Christian Spirituality, Rolheiser diagrams the paschal cycle like this:
- Good Friday… “the loss of life—real death”
- Easter Sunday… “the reception of new life”
- The Forty Days (that’s from Easter Day until Ascension)… “a time for readjustment to the new and for grieving the old”
- Ascension… “letting go of the old and letting it bless you, the refusal to cling”
- Pentecost… “the reception of new spirit for the new life that one is already living”
He then translates all that church language into a personal, paschal challenge for each one of us:
- “Name your deaths”
- “Claim your births”
- “Grieve what you have lost and adjust to the new reality”
- “Do not cling to the old, let it ascend and give you its blessing”
- “Accept the spirit of the life that you are in fact living”
And here’s what Rolheiser then says, and this will change your life: “This cycle is not something that we must undergo just once, at the moment of our deaths, when we lose our earthly lives as we know them. It is rather something we must undergo daily, in every aspect of our lives. Christ spoke of many deaths, of daily deaths, and of many rising and various pentecosts. The paschal mystery is the secret to life. Ultimately our happiness depends upon properly undergoing it.”
This has absolutely been my lived experience. And if you look back over your life, I bet you can spot this pattern everywhere. Think about something that you are moving through right now. Can you spot a death of some sorts that you have had to undergo? Could you see the budding of new life that eventually followed that death? Can you identify those feelings of grief as you grieved what you lost, and can you mark those fledging, unsteady steps as you stepped out into that new life? Can you mark a moment when you finally surrendered and let that old life go, and could you feel a smile come across your face as you recognized its blessings? And can you feel that spirit that came to you when it felt like your heart and soul finally caught up with your new reality, your new life? This cycle is some of the most practical spiritual insight I have ever come across for actually making sense of our lives in the pattern that Jesus’ life actually followed.
And of all these steps, I actually think the one we have talked the least about is this piece around Ascension. “The refusal to cling…letting go of the old…letting it bless you and letting it ascend.” And this is where I think the stories we tell ourselves are so powerful. We construct narratives around our lived experience, and those narratives aren’t always benign. Those stories can keep us stuck; they can prevent us from being present to all that is, right now, right here—they can even keep us from seeing the person we actually are and the life we actually have because we are still clinging to some other narrative.
Just this past few weeks, I have had a fascinating lesson in how powerful this dynamic can be. Okay, so are you ever going along in your life and things are going just dandy, and something pops up that takes you back 20 years—you run into someone, or you have to do a task that throws you back to another time you had to do that task, something like that? Got that picture in your head? Well, that happened to me. I had to do something that took me back 20 years to an experience that, every now and again, I’d feel that groan feeling. You know that ohhhh-wince-avert-the-eyes feeling. It was one of those experiences where I went out on a limb, and well, let’s just say, I learned about Newtonian physics and the law of gravity—I fell pretty flat on my face. I then did what we human beings do, I started constructing a narrative around this experience, and for all my fancy processing of that experience, beneath it all, there was still a good dose of shame.
So, this current experience that triggered that past one, it prompted me to go hunting through some old journals, and I found the one for that season of my life. And here’s what I learned: the narrative that I had constructed, the story that I had been telling myself all these years, it didn’t actually happen—the actual events did not match the narrative I had been telling myself. In fact, the reality of that experience 20 years ago was this: I entered an arena that was really important to me, and I did so with incredible integrity, and I was incredibly brave. Are there things I wish I had done a little differently, sure, but as I read that journal, I realized, there was NOTHING to be ashamed of. The courage that I have consciously cultivated these last couple of years, it was there all the way back then. But that old story, from time to time, it would bubble up, and I would feel that icky groan feeling, and this week, I found out that that story wasn’t even true. Not by a long shot.
How much energy do we expend clinging to our stories about the past? And not only that, but I’d be willing to bet that if we could look back with compassionate eyes, we’d find much more courage and wisdom present in the real experiences of our lives.
But here’s the thing, resurrection is an ongoing, lived reality. We can actually be living our new lives even while we tell ourselves those old stories. We’ve got to let those stories go, receive their blessing, be grateful for the wisdom we’ve accumulated because of them, but LET THEM GO. Thanks to the movie Frozen, even our 5 year olds know how to sing “Let it go! Let it go!” Maybe we need to let them teach us how to sing a new song.
We’ve got to let these stories go, so that we can actually lay claim to the new life we’ve been given, so that we can cultivate the new life that is springing up all around us. Those old stories, they cloud our vision and rob us of joy. Letting these stories go is an essential step if we are to have enough space to receive a new spirit for this new life that we are, in fact, already living. This new spirit will give us the intuitive wisdom and language and guidance we need to move more deeply into this new life, this resurrection life, but there’s no room for that wisdom if our brains are full of old stories, and we are weighted down with fear, anxiety, resentment, or shame.
There is one other piece that it seems important to address. Okay, in one sense, Jesus leaves us on Ascension, and he will send his Spirit to us on Pentecost, so that we are not, in the words of the collect for today, “comfortless”—but what about this in-between time? Where is he right now? Pondering this conundrum this past week, I got a little panicky because one of the premises of my spiritual life is that Jesus never leaves us, and that he has filled every aspect of our existence with his presence. But this in-between time is a time where he seems not to be present, where he has “left the building,” so to speak.
But then I remembered, resurrection life. We are still in Easter time. His resurrection life remains. This new life, it is still unfolding even in this in-between time. Every experience of resurrection that we have just weaves us more deeply into the rhythm of Jesus’ life. So, in the words of the angel, “fear not,” resurrection is still the heartbeat of the universe, and like we worked out in the beginning, Jesus has not ascended away (vertically), but his presence is moving out, expanding, filling all things. Come one week from today, on Pentecost, we will be given a new spirit that will help us understand and lay claim to that new mind-blowing reality.
It’s all good. Or, as Julian of Norwich said, “All shall be well.” Let go of your old story; it doesn’t fit your new life, and come next week, a new spirit is gonna grab hold that will give you eyes to see what has been there all along—and then, baby, watch out, because there is no power greater than when this all lines up. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
May 17, 2015