“After this the priest says, ‘The holy things are for the holy’. Holy are the gifts presented, having received the visitation of the Holy Spirit; holy are you also, having been deemed worthy of the Holy Spirit; the holy things therefore correspond to the holy persons. But then you say, ‘One is Holy, One is the Lord, Jesus Christ’; for One is truly holy, by nature holy; we too are holy, but not by nature, only by participation, and discipline, and prayer” (St Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystagogic catecheses 5.19).
I missed Divine Service for the Ascension of Our Lord this past Thursday, which–if I finish writing this before midnight on Saturday, 19 May–was two days ago. Since I had to work at the restaurant that night, I had it in my head that I would pen some thoughts on the back of an old menu (as I do), and later on transfer them to this august weblog, but we (the restaurant) were busier than normal, so I had to, you know…actually do my job. Which is hosting.
At a prior time in my life I might not have cared that much about missing church, at least not on a Thursday night, but I’ve been part of a church that follows the historic Western Rite for about six years now, and I have arrived at the point where missing church on high feast days is frankly a letdown. It’s not as though my attending church Thursday evening would have helped Christ out, or let Him know that I’m pious, etc. I didn’t violate an oath or anything like that. No, that’s all silly. But the real reason, though perhaps less silly, is no less affectatious:
The liturgy is a pageant. I didn’t show up for the performance. As a result, I got a little bit out of character.
I’m aware of how pretentious that sounds on the surface. Even if you were to dig beneath the surface, you may discover that the pretense is more than skin-deep. But the liturgy really is a pageant. I’d even say that it’s a play, a play which is in some sense acted out (if not actually enacted) by all of the faithful, i.e., the local Church congregation. But there’s no audience. It’s like a performance of a Shakespeare play which the actors act out for…well…themselves. I mean, it’s only somewhat like that. The point is that the liturgy requires an affectation on the part of the faithful (especially the uninitiate) which seems unnatural at first, and which will always be unnatural even long after it has stopped seeming so. But it really is all an act. A wearing of masks. Blessed hypocrisy and a grand pretense. Not natural. In the corporate worship of God, we, the members of the Body of Christ, are never less ourselves, and never more ourselves. We get into a character, a persona, that is not quite us, but not quite not us, but was nonetheless intended for us—and we for it. It’s the most normal thing in the cosmos, really, but it’s always something of an affectation for us poor, miserable sinners.
Anyway, what Thomas Aquinas says about the contemplative life holds true for the liturgy, as well (one might argue that Christian worship is the highest form of contemplation): Non est proprie humana, sed superhumana. Not a property of what is human, but what is superhuman (i.e., above what is human). Not merely natural, but supernatural. And it’s a good thing, too. What is genuinely and, yes, naturally of us is not godly, is oriented not towards the worship of the Triune God, but towards the worship of self. The whole point of going to church is to be washed and cleansed from the merely natural, because our mere human nature is corrupted and not to be trusted: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah xvii, 9). We come to have our hearts changed, not to show God the goodness that (we think) is in our hearts.
In the liturgy, we sing to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. We do not merely use our own speech, but rather we make God’s Word and words—culled directly from Holy Scripture—our words. While it’s good that they’re written on our hearts, we need to say them and sing them with our mouths, too. As our words. We use God’s own Words, and we say and sing them to each other, not just to God. Sure, the songs of His children are a sweet-smelling aroma to Him. But they are not luxuries to us: they are life and light, food and drink—air, even—to the Church gathered in that place, and to each and every member therein. Notice that the angels whom Isaiah beholds in the throne-room of God sing to each other that God is holy:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!” (Isaiah vi, 1 – 3).
We, the Creator’s halfhearted creatures, are the ones who need to be reminded that God is holy.
But I digress…
The “problem” with me not making it to church for Ascension is not that I thereby failed to meet some legal obligation. Not at all—but I did lose out on the blessing of that particular feast: the blessing of bearing witness to the crucified and risen Lord’s Ascension to the right hand of God the Father Almighty at a time when the other members of His Body were doing the same. Lent has come and gone; we have witnessed the suffering of Our Lord in Holy Scripture, at once triumphant yet horrendous; we have rejoiced with a joy not of ourselves upon witnessing His bursting to life from the tomb, at His assumption and defeat of death. To witness His Ascension to the Right Hand of God is to not only see the denouement of the play, but to sing the story as part of the chorus (think ancient Greek drama), the story which is finished, but whose finishedness is ongoing and ever-present. This is what it means to keep the feast.
And I really do mean to use the word “witness”, for in the Church we see with our ears. Truth is present to us in the preached Word in a way that, for the time being, is more real than sight. “Jesus said to him, ‘Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (St. John xx, 29). We do not bear witness in some stark Cartesian sense, where the Ascension is a fact which we recognize and comprehend rationally. Inasmuch as it is a fact (a factum—something done or made), it is one which we are caught up into. Not through some esoteric Platonic epiphany. Not through a vague, personal mysticism. No, not through any of that. If you’re capable of such things (and I doubt that you are—no offense), great. The Church, however, is here for all of us poor sinners, and Her lowly means condescend to the lowest common denominator of all of our frailties. So we use things like the lectionary and Sacraments, and we have access to them through the ministrations of men who, though the Office they hold is sacred, are mere men. They give the holy things to the holy ones, the saints—we who are made holy by the Blood of the Lamb. These simple gifts “catch us up” into Christ’s Ascension, into His ascendant reign of grace, into the three-personed life of the Trinity.
And these simple gifts do not merely signify, point to, or remind us of Christ. The pastor does not preach about Christ, or about His Gospel. What I missed on Thursday was not some lesson about Christ’s ascension that I could have learned only on that day. No, I’m sure that I can learn about Christ’s ascension in an academic way, even a spiritually edifying way, from any number of great books, or from a good conversation with Fr. Charles, any day of the week. This is all well and good. But every feast day is a different lens or prism through which we see the Gospel. To alter the predicate here, one might say that every feast day (most especially, though not exclusively, the feast-days of Easter) is a different token of the Gospel—the selfsame Gospel in every instance, but rendered differently. Each feast-day has its own poetics. On Ascension, then, the pastor preaches the Gospel (direct object—not an object of the preposition!) by means of the unique poetics of that feast. So, really, I lost nothing by dint of my absence from Divine Service, but what could have been gained (received, really) only by going to church, was just…well…not gained. Not received. I missed being there.
…but now it’s Exaudi Sunday (Seventh Sunday after Easter), and Pastor Esget taught an amazing class about Christology and the Ascension, and during Divine Service Pastor Kieselowsky preached a fantastic sermon about the Ascension, so I feel a little less disoriented and out of step with the liturgical calendar. Thanks be to God!
Honestly, I had intended to write more about the Ascension itself, and why the apostolic teaching concerning the Ascension, Christ’s reign at the Right Hand of the Father, the nature of heaven, et aliī, is so essential to the Church’s confession of Christ as Lord. After Pastor Esget’s class this morning, though, I realize that I have a bit more thinking and reading to do before I venture upon writing such a post in earnest. So I guess it’s good that I allowed myself to get sidetracked into writing about the liturgy again. Well, good for me. Maybe not good for you.
Thanks for reading. I’ll leave you with the lyrics to one of the hymns for Ascension that we sang today, “See, the Lord Ascends in Triumph,” which stand by themselves as beautiful poetry even without music. And it should come as no surprise that it does—the author, Christopher Wordsworth (1807-1885), is William Wordsworth’s nephew…
~ See, the Lord Ascends in Triumph
See, the Lord ascends in triumph,
Conqu’ring King in royal state
Riding on the clouds, His chariot
To His heav’nly palace gate;
Hark! The choirs of angel voices
Joyful alleluias sing,
And the portals high are lifted
To receive their heav’nly King.
Who is this that comes in glory
With the trump of jubilee?
Lord of battles, God of armies,
He has gained the victory.
He who on the cross did suffer,
He who from the grave arose,
He has vanquished sin and Satan;
He by death has spoiled His foes.
While He lifts His hands in blessing
He is parted from His friends;
While their eager eyes behold Him,
He upon the clouds ascends.
He who walked with God and pleased Him,
Preaching truth and doom to come,
He, our Enoch, is translated
To His everlasting home.
Now our heav’nly Aaron enters
With His blood within the veil;
Joshua now is come to Canaan,
And the kings before Him quail.
Now He plants the tribes of Israel
In their promised resting place,
Now our great Elijah offers
Double portion of His grace.
He has raised our human nature
On the clouds to God’s right hand;
There we sit in heav’nly places,
There with Him in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels;
By our mighty Lord’s ascension
We by faith behold our own.