Ascension Politics

Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53 (The Feast of the Ascension)

St. Augustine considered the Feast of the Ascension the crown of all Christian festivals. Today we may give it an obligatory nod as we make our way liturgically from Easter to Pentecost, but we’re often not quite sure what to do with it theologically, pastorally, exegetically. The clunky literalism routinely inspired by the Luke-Acts vision of the ascension—Jesus rocketing upward into outer space—is not a little embarrassing.

Whatever historical event lies behind the Luke-Acts narratives of Jesus’ ascension into heaven—and the fact that the two accounts differ in important ways might be a clue that a surface-literal reading is not what the author had in mind—a couple of things stand out: the centrality of worship and the reimagining of “all rule and authority and power and dominion.”

Tom Wright points out that Luke’s gospel ends, as it began, in the Temple at Jerusalem. “Worship of the living God,” Wright says, “is at the heart of Luke’s vision of the Christian life.” Jesus’ ascension into heaven, then, is not “beam me up, Scotty” science fiction, but rather that which makes possible the church’s existence. Read more

Show Us the Way

John 15:9-17

On March 12, 1977, Fr. Rutilio Grande, SJ, was assassinated along with two companions as they drove toward evening mass through the fields near El Paisnal, El Salvador. Fr. Grande knew where he was going. During his five years as parish priest in nearby Aguilares, he formed Christian base communities, trained lay “delegates,” and vocally opposed government attempts to silence Salvadoran priests who worked with and organized peasant laborers.

It was not a safe time. As Fr. Grande said, “It is practically illegal to be an authentic Christian in our situation because the world around us is rooted in an established disorder. Confronting that, the mere proclamation of the gospel is subversive.” Yet he had a larger vision: that of the Eucharistic table, the Lord’s Supper, which he described in a homily not long before his murder as, “the greatest commitment, the symbol of a shared table, with a seat for each person and tablecloths long enough for all creation.” “For this,” he added, presumably aware of the costs and demands of discipleship, “redemption is needed.” Read more

Pruning Time

John 15:1-8
(Fifth Sunday of Easter)

My friends, Chuck and Mary, some years ago turned a Henry County, Kentucky, tobacco farm into a vineyard and winery. They grow hay, keep a large vegetable garden and busy themselves with other crops, but wine is the farm’s major product. Recently, my wife and I drove down to visit. The two of us talked with Mary and her mother in a shady spot near the old dairy shed, but Chuck was busy pruning vines. Sweaty and dirty, he called to us from a distance, but there wasn’t time to stop and chat.

Mary told how she used to help Chuck with the pruning, but Chuck’s a perfectionist and prefers to do it alone, his way. Cutting the vine in the right places is an exacting, necessary task. Unpruned, vines grow in wild, unruly ways, exploding with heavy new branches and leaf cascades, but little fruit. Read more

The Good Shepherd

Psalm 23; 1 John 3:1-24; John 10:11-18
(Fourth Sunday of Easter)

One problem with the many references to sheep in the Bible is that so few of us have any real contact with these animals. The metaphor is simply lost on us. What does it mean to be compared to sheep? The little we’ve heard or read about them—that they’re not particularly bright—does not endear us to the metaphor.

But here’s the thing about Good Shepherd Sunday: it’s not about sheep at all. It is about a shepherd—the “Good Shepherd”—but even that designation is charged with meanings that can be lost on us.

“I am the good shepherd,” says Jesus. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

The life of a shepherd was anything but dreamy or picturesque. Taking care of sheep was dangerous, difficult, tedious work. Shepherds were, as one commentator has said, “rough around the edges, spending time in the fields rather than in polite society. For Jesus to say, ‘I am the good shepherd,’would have been an affront to the religious elite. The claim had an edge to it. A modern-day equivalent might be for Jesus to say, ‘I am the good migrant worker.’”* Read more

Resurrection and Torture

Luke 24:36b-48
(Third Sunday of Easter)

Torture may be considered a kind of perverse liturgy, for in torture the body of the victim is the ritual site where the state’s power is manifested in its most awesome form.” – William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist

The government memos released last week, detailing acts of torture carried out by C.I.A. operatives in the Bush administration, make for interesting reading in light of the gospel narratives’ about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to his disciples. That human bodies matter is a central truth of the Easter proclamation.

But this is less than obvious in an age when Christians more often associate Easter’s meaning with “the immortality of the soul” than with “the resurrection of the body.” When we spiritualize Easter—when we imagine disembodied souls reuniting with loved ones in heaven—we miss this point about bodies and we also, as Tom Wright has observed, “cut the nerve of the social, cultural and political critique.” Read more