Monday, May 30, 2011

Ascended

Ephesians 1:11-23

The Ascension is another one of those stories which pose problems for Christian believers. Set aside the supernatural, set aside the speculations about where Jesus went or where heaven is located, and go straight to the heart of the matter. Jesus' disciples are again left alone. How is Jesus present among us, and what are we to do, when he is so obviously, so scripturally, GONE?

The popularity of this image in the church may certainly be attributed to the proclamation of Jesus as ruler in the heavens, and in anticipation of the way believers hope to rise up with him in the afterlife. But perhaps it also speaks to the attempts to hold onto, to keep connected to this beloved one who is not directly present with us. I cannot help but remember our visits to my grandfather and the way, just prior to climbing in the car to travel home, the whole family would gather for photographs, the last remembrance for another year - or perhaps forever.

The letter to the Ephesians dates from a time when the new Jesus communities are making their own transitions, the time when the expected second coming of Christ is taking longer than expected and the first generation of apostles is ending with the glory still to come. This is a lonely place, prone to doubts. This reading from Ephesians is no doubt appointed for the feast of the Ascension because it speaks of Jesus ruling in in the heavenly places. But we might also read it as emphasizing the sure connection we, the living, have to this heavenly Lord.

"In Christ we have obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to his purpose..." (Eph 1:11). The first great Ephesians theme: God's got this covered. God has "a plan for the fullness of time" (1:10), God destined us for adoption as God's own children (1:5), God has created us for good works which have been ordained for us (2:10), all "in accordance with the eternal purpose" in Christ Jesus our Lord (3:11). God's will may be a mystery, but it is made known to us in Christ, "to gather up all things in him" (1:10). You may be feeling lost, you may be wondering what's next, but God's got this covered. You "were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption" (1:13-14).

That's the letter's first step, to simply proclaim that our doubt, our confusion, our fears, even our sense of loss and failures of hope all take place within a context where God has already decided the main issues. And God's decision is for us. Take courage, ‘cause God’s got this.

And then the apostle turns to the other major theme of the letter: survival strategies. Later we’ll hear much exhortation about how we are to live. Living with humility and gentleness, patience, bearing with one another in love (4:2) and so on, are meant to help us cope with the world as it is and to prepare for the world that is coming into being. In these early verses, the apostle is laying the foundation for the practical advice that is to come.

Yet we cannot sustain faith on our own. Without our lord and savior in front of us every day, without our beloved teachers and mentors, we falter. Seeing our own insufficiencies, our own failures, our own broken conceits and foolish ideas about God's plan, we may well be prone to discouragement. Each day, we see the evidence that the entire world is not yet acting as though Christ is ruling with justice. Sometimes our own people seem just as fallen as the empire, and there’s no earthly Jesus, no Paul or Peter or James or Thomas or Mary to buck up our spirit.

So the apostle writes, at one and the same time commending his hearers for their faith, and linking it to love their fellows and prayer that their hope may be nourished, may be nurtured, may be completed in God. "I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints," and for this reason the writer is thankful, and I daresay, confident. He gives thanks, and he prays that we may receive wisdom, that we may evermore know "the hope to which God has called us."

For this whole business is about power – God’s great power at work in Christ, not simply ruling over the heavens, but active in the world. God’s power rules over all: thus demons are cast out, people and institutions are healed, the deadening yoke of oppression is being broken and replaced with the reconciling power of Christ’s peace. Our "glorious inheritance" is not that we are on the winning team, but that God’s victory for us means healing, liberation, and wholeness-peace-shalom.

All that wonderful advice, and all that wonderful ministry that's already occurred is only a part of the complete plan for God's kingdom. The glimpses we've had are pale shadows of the fullness of God's vision. Jesus, coming in glory, no painter can do it justice, it's not about clouds and thrones and radiant light, but about God breaking down the barriers of sin and death and enmity. Hold fast to that hope, for he is coming to complete the redemption of his body - you, me, everybody, the whole world filled with his glory! Hosanna!

God's hope is the great survival strategy of this age: "with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you" (1:18).

It is not easy to see him go. Perhaps we must save the snapshots which remind us of his journey on earth. Yet the fullness of his hope, which may be granted to those who "come to know him," (1:17) is a kind of reflected glory. We may do better to pray that we may know his heavenly light shining among us even now, when we share the bread of fellowship and of peace that Christ first shared with us.

"Ascension of Christ" by Garofalo, 1520.
Attribution unknown for the other two artworks.
 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

District 31-33 map

There may be an official map out there somewhere, but here is the first unofficial map of the new boundaries between NJ legislative districts 31 and 33.

It is compiled from the Reapportionment Commission's list of local electoral districts checked against Jersey City ward maps. Click on the map for a larger version.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A bad end

It is reported that Osama bin Laden has been killed by U.S. military action.

This man is responsible for the death of thousands, and the reactions to his actions have killed many thousands more. NBC News is calling it “breathtaking.” 9/11/01 and its many victims took my breath away; this does not.

Many will celebrate; I cannot. If any deserve death for their crimes, Osama bin Laden surely did. I have suffered with my neighbors. I have walked through the ruins he made. I have cared for the remains of his victims, and grieved with those who survived his attacks. Let the names of his victims be remembered. Let their lives be lifted up.

I am glad Osama bin Laden no longer has the ability to do harm. His life has been soaked in blood. Yet I am sorry to see his end come in still more violence. Despite all its complications, I wish he could have had the trial we – the civilized world – so richly deserved.

But that is apparently done. There will be a parade of images, his body will be displayed, and many will be glad to call this the end of his story.

May God have mercy on his soul.
 

The Story of the Easter Egg

The Eastern Church has preserved a very different portrait of Mary Magdalene than the ideas about her that predominated for centuries in the Western Church, where she has been conflated and confused with the nameless “woman of the city” who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears (among others). The Eastern Church remembers her as a cultured and intelligent woman, the daughter of a well-to-do merchant family from the seaport town of Magdala. This is what gave her the resources and influence to support Jesus in his ministry. Because Jesus appeared first to her in resurrected form, and commissioned her to go tell the rest of the disciples this amazing good news, she is honored with the title: “Apostle to the Apostles” and “First Apostle” – the word “apostle” meaning: “One who is sent.”

After the descent of the Holy Spirit onto the early Christian community, Mary Magdalene traveled with John to preach and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. Her ability made her a leader in the early Community and gained her admission into the homes of many influential families. This was how she came to attend a banquet where the Roman Emperor, Tiberius Caesar, was present. During the meal, she talked of Jesus and told the story of his Resurrection. Tiberius scoffed: “No one rises from the dead!” He pointed at a platter of hard-boiled eggs on the table in front of them. “Why, a man could rise from the dead no more than these white eggs could turn red!”

Mary Magdalene reached out and picked up one of the eggs, which turned bright red in her hand – right before the eyes of the Emperor. This sign so astonished Tiberius that he asked her for more of the story. It is documented in the administrative accounts that survive from the Roman Empire that Pontius Pilate, known for years as a ruthless “hanging judge” maintained colonial power in Judea and Palestine by crucifying anyone who caused any kind of disturbance. And for years, that was fine with Rome. But at about the same time as the banquet story may have happened, Pilate was abruptly fired and recalled, because of the indiscriminate crucifixions he had been inflicting on the people of Jerusalem. What caused this sudden change of a long-standing policy?

Perhaps it really was the dinner conversation that Mary Magdalene had with the only man in the Empire who could have given the order to fire an Imperial Governor for punishing people too harshly. At any rate, this story is where the practice of dyeing Easter eggs bright colors is said to come from. In Orthodox churches, at the end of the Great Easter Liturgy, baskets of eggs, colored solid red, are blessed by the priests, and distributed by deacons to each person in the congregation as part of the Communion service. This is to remember Mary Magdalene and her part in the Resurrection story of Easter with these ancient symbols of Spring, rebirth and new life.

This icon of the “Apostle to the Apostles” by Robert Lentz depicts Mary Magdalene wearing the red robes that are the attribute of witnesses, “martyrs” of the Church. She holds an egg and points to it. The writing beneath reads: “Saint Mary Magdalene” in Syraic, a dialect of the language she spoke, along with Jesus. It was commissioned for the consecration of Barbara Harris, first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion.

Written by Lisa Bellan-Boyer, St. Matthew’s Parish Iconographer
One Spirit Interfaith Seminary Class of 2011

Mary Magdalene icon by Robert Lentz, available from the online catalog of Trinity Stores.