November 20, 2016

Christ the King

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
–Theodore Parker

A Worm’s Waking Rumi
This is how a human being can change.
There is a worm
addicted to eating grape leaves.

Suddenly, she wakes up,
call it grace, whatever, something
wakes her, and she is no longer a worm.

She is the entire vineyard,
and the orchard too, the fruit, the trunks,
a growing wisdom and joy
that does not need to devour.

Qur’an 17:1
Glory Be to God Who carried God’s servant by night
from the Sacred Mosque to the Furthest Mosque,
whose precincts We have blessed,
to show him of Our wonders!

God it is Who is All-Hearing, All-seeing!

2 Kings 2:1-15
Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.’ But Elisha said, ‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’ So they went down to Bethel. The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, ‘Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I know; keep silent.’

Elijah said to him, ‘Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.’ But he said, ‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’ So they came to Jericho. The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, ‘Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?’ And he answered, ‘Yes, I know; be silent.’

Then Elijah said to him, ‘Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.’ But he said, ‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’ So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.

When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.’ Elisha said, ‘Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’ He responded, ‘You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.’ As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, ‘Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.
Elisha Succeeds Elijah

He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, ‘Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?’ When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.

When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, ‘The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.’ They came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him.

The Ascension of Lord Krishna Srimad Bhagavatam
S’rî S’uka said: ‘Then Brahmâ with his consort Bhavânî arrived there, along with S’iva and the demigods led by Indra and the sages with the lords of the people. The forefathers, the perfected and divine singers, the scientists and the great egos, the venerable, the treasure keepers and the wild men, the ones of superpower and the dancing girls of heaven and all the ones of Garuda desirous to witness the passing away of the Supreme Lord, eagerly chanted and praised the birth and activities of Krishna.

They, crowding the sky in a great number of vimânas, o King, joined in transcendental devotion showering flowers. The Supreme Lord seeing the great father and his powerful expansions before Him, fixed His consciousness within Himself, the Almighty One, and closed His lotus eyes. Without burning in a mystic trance the object auspicious to all trance and meditation, viz. His body that is most attractive in all the worlds, He entered His own abode.

And while in heaven kettledrums resounded and flowers fell from the sky, He was, as He left the earth, followed by Truth, Righteousness, Constancy, Fame and Beauty. The demigods and others headed by Brahmâ, not quite knowing what Krishna had done, didn’t all see Him entering His abode, but those who did were most amazed. Just as mortals cannot ascertain the path lightning describes in the sky as it finds its way through the clouds, the gods likewise couldn’t trace the path of Krishna.

But Brahmâ, S’iva and the others witnessing, in astonishment glorified the yogic power of the Lord, after which each of them returned to his own world.

In the End is the Body Gail Holst-Warhaft
In the end is the body—what we know
as inspiration departs before
the final assault of pain and decay.
Even the carpenter’s son from Nazareth
could not, in the end, overcome
the body’s claims though he knew
inspiration more than most.

And don’t imagine his mother
was indifferent to the hammer smashing
the arrangement of bone and sinew she
had held in hers at his beginning.
She wished him back unpierced, smelling
of sawdust and sweat. He was the one
she’d hoped would close her eyes in the end.

In the end my mother lay
body-bound, curled like a foetus,
fretting for a peppermint, a sip of whiskey,
the pillow turned this way and that,
and she a woman who, buoyant in silk
and shingled hair, stood on the hill
at Fiesole reciting her Browning to the wind.

Acts 1:6-11
So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.

 

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This Sunday, known as Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday is the last day in the church’s liturgical calendar. Next week is the First Sunday of Advent that begins the church year.

The church year begins with Advent which means “coming.” The season anticipates both the birth of Jesus and the second Advent when he returns to according to the Apostle’s Creed “judge the quick and the dead.”

Advent initiates the Christmas season that winds a path through Christmas and Epiphany. Near Groundhog’s Day half-way between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox is Transfiguration Sunday. This is the story of Jesus being transfigured before the disciples and appearing with Elijah and Moses.

The following Sunday is the beginning of the Easter Cycle with Lent. 40 days not counting Sundays until Easter. Lent consists of five Sundays. The sixth Sunday is Palm Sunday that commemorates Jesus’s triumphal entrance into Jerusalem and his fateful final week.

Between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday is Holy Week. Within that is Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, his last supper and the command to “love one another.” Command or mandate is where we get the word Maundy. He is arrested and on Friday executed. Called Good Friday because in this theological tradition his death saves humanity from sin. Then there is Easter Sunday, the biggest day of the Christian year, when we commemorate Jesus rising from the dead.

Forty days after Easter is a day Protestants generally don’t do much with as it would require going to church on Thursday and who wants that. So we generally skip over the ascension. This is where Jesus ascends in to heaven to take his rightful place. According to the creed, he “sitteth at the right hand of God the Father.”

Televangelist Pat Robertson reports that the Lord revealed to him in a dream that Donald Trump was sitting at the right hand of the father. I will let you sit uncomfortably with that bit of sacrilege.

Protestants don’t do much with the ascension, even though it really is the point of the whole thing. We get another chance to celebrate ascension just before Thanksgiving on Christ the King Sunday. Before then we need to finish the Easter cycle.

Here is a fun fact. How is the date of Easter calculated?   Easter Sunday is the first Sunday after the first full moon following Spring Equinox. Even though in the story, Jesus is crucified on the day after Passover in the synoptic gospels or on Passover in the gospel of John, we don’t use the Jewish calendar and Passover to calculate Easter.

Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon that is on or after the Spring Equinox. It isn’t exactly that simple as some churches use the Gregorian calendar and others the Julian calendar. Episcopal priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor, writes that she feels she needs to put on her wizard’s hat when she calculates this.

Nowadays thanks to astronomy and computers the calendars have all been calculated for us and we can find the dates of Easter for centuries to come by googling it on our phones. Once you figure out the date of Easter, you go backwards to calculate the beginning of Lent and Transfiguration Sunday before and then Ascension and Pentecost after.

Fifty days after Easter is Pentecost. On this day we celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the church. This is a day in the Bible story found in Acts chapter two that is called Pentecost. But the Pentecost in the Bible is actually 50 days after Passover, a Jewish holiday, Shavuot. Christians co-opted that day and turned it into the Christian Pentecost which is 50 days after Easter.

Then for a long time, throughout the summer and Fall we are in Ordinary Time.
Ordinary time ends today. Practically speaking, Ordinary time ends today and Hectic Time begins as we start our Christmas buying frenzy in our quest to save the capitalist economy for yet another year.

This end of Ordinary Time is called Christ the King Sunday. It is in a sense a replay of Ascension Sunday. We sing the same hymns, “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus”, “Crown Him with Many Crowns’ and the like. Jesus rules creation at the right hand of the Father in the heavens above. According to the vision of Pat Robertson, he shares the seat with “the Donald.”

Christ the King points to what is and what will be. Christ is on the throne but not everything is going so well down here. Christ the King thus points to what will be when the kingdom of heaven unites with the kingdom of earth, as we say in the prayer, “thy kingdom come on Earth as it is in heaven.”

I have a lover’s quarrel with the liturgical calendar.

‘A lover’s quarrel’ comes from Robert Frost’s rather lengthy poem. He imagines himself writing to medieval bards asking which age is darkest ours or theirs. What is a philosophy a theology in our time? Perhaps memento mori as the medievalists held, remember death. Frost concludes:

I hold your doctrine of Memento Mori.
And were an epitaph to be my story
I’d have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.

That last line is actually on Robert Frost’s gravestone.

I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.

My quarrel with the liturgical calendar and by extension the theology of the church is a lover’s quarrel. If you have ever had a lover you know that quarrels can be heated. But they are not the quarrels of strangers or of the indifferent, or of so-called Facebook “friends.” They are the quarrels of lovers who have a stake in the relationship, who in the midst, before and after the quarrel are lovers.

I have a lover’s quarrel with religion, particularly, the Christian religion. I am not really sure if Christ is going to come again or is sitting at the right hand of God even metaphorically. I don’t know if Thomas Parker and later Martin Luther King Jr. were right that “the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice.”

But after the events of a week ago Tuesday, many people, including me, wish it were so.

The liturgical calendar didn’t just appear. It evolved after centuries along with the theological doctrines and the practices, the sacred stories, and the scriptures. They appeared for a reason. Not to oversimplify, but I think it would be safe to say that the reason for religion is suffering. The suffering that comes with mortality, with sickness, physical and mental, pain, violence, uncertainty, loneliness, desire, shame.

The church’s liturgical calendar, the seasons of its life repeat each year and tell a pre-modern cosmic story because, life is, to use a Sanskrit word, Dukkha. Dukkha means struggle, suffering, angst, impermanence. Sin is the word for Christians, literally “missing the mark.” Alienation, exile.

Critics of religion, those who are not lovers, who might have been once, but are no longer, say that religion is a fake cure, a phony collection of fables, a fraudulent scheme that peddles false hope. We’d be better off with out it.

I can’t say they aren’t right. I mean, how can you prove it either way?

Karl Marx famously said that religion is the “opiate of the people.” That wasn’t a criticism but an observation. An opiate dulls the pain. Is that so bad? Whatever it takes to get through the night, to get through a disappointing election without running screaming into the darkness.

I have a lover’s quarrel with religion. I point out what I think are its shortcomings on a regular basis, but not as one who has left it or who despises it, but as a lover. A lover’s quarrel.

Amidst all the otherworldly mythology of the church calendar and its various beliefs, I find myself marveling now again and stopping to admire the artistry.

Consider today, Christ the King, at the right hand of the Father (yes, yes, the patriarchy is very problematic), but there he is anyway, reigning over all, up there, above the clouds. He ascended.

I am not trying to sell it but there is something about the possibility of ascent. Religion holds out the promise that human beings can ascend. Krishna, Jesus, Mohammad, Moses, Elijah, Buddha, all have stories of ascension. They have risen above it all, so to speak.

All of them did so amidst great suffering and struggle. The human can ascend.

One of my favorite verses from the Gospel of Thomas is saying two:

Jesus said, “Let one who seeks not stop seeking until that person finds; and upon finding, the person will be disturbed; and being disturbed, will be astounded; and will reign over all.”

Ascension. We can rise. We can be better than this. We can thrive and find a path to ascension in the midst of the darkness.

The fascists can and will do a lot of harm.

They must be resisted.

But what the fascists cannot do unless we voluntarily give it up to them is take away our human propensity to ascend.

Amidst all of what religion is, its shortcomings and its tendency to be coopted by moralists, superstitions and psychopaths, nonetheless, it holds within itself for those of us who are willing to enter its world, the possibility of trusting the hope of a universe that bends toward justice, of a human being who can be good, who can be loving, who can make peace, who can live justly, who can in the midst of great adversity and overwhelming odds, live with dignity and embody the light.

Amen.