A reflection on the lectionary readings for Easter 7B/Ascension by The Rev. Jacqueline Schmitt
Lately I have felt trapped by the Episcopal Church. It’s probably not just the Episcopal Church’s fault; I think any kind of parish ministry demands the “jack of all trades/master of none” kind of busy-work that precludes sustained thought, reflection and prayer. There is hardly any time to answer that old Marvin Gaye question, “What’s going on?”
Just before I woke up this morning I had a dream about the Episcopal Church. The radio comes on at 6 a.m., and in that nether land of quasi-consciousness, my dreams are often laced with news reports. Maybe this one was. I saw (in my dream) a picture of the Presiding Bishop, in those lovely blue-green vestments; I think it was some kind of communion service, some big service, and a tall, blond woman in an alb was coming toward the congregation with a chalice. The news report (in my dream) said that the Presiding Bishop had started her tenure with such promise of productivity, activity, good things, and now, ironically, because of unforeseen conditions (calamities unstated but known to everyone hearing the report), this early promise would be unrealized. Aha, my dream-self said to myself, how true, how true. Now it makes sense.
Well, as dreams go, it didn’t make any sense at all, and here and now I’m not about to delve into all the analysis the dream offers. It does, though, have something to say about what made me eager to write this entry about Ascentiontide and its sister observance, Rogation.
I think we women were promised something by the church, as our employer, that it has not always delivered on. Jesus gets us into this business, alluring us with the power of prophecy, of justice, of mercy. The kingdom of God is among you, Jesus would say to us; join up! So we do; well, we hang our hat on the institutional church, which nearly always disappoints us, nearly always falls short of that prophecy we first heard Jesus shout from the rooftops or whisper in our ears.
Yet in this season of Ascension, we remember that Jesus has delivered on those early promises. Human institutions may sin and fall short of the glory of God, but Jesus knows that. Jesus walked these streets with us, and now where has that gotten us? Into heaven, with God.
The Ascension is the taking of our human nature into the territory where we were never allowed to go. Our created nature -- our kind of people -- were cast out of paradise, and God posted cherubim at the gates to keep us out. Now, with Christ, our status is raised higher than the angels.
Celebrating Ascensiontide was important to early Christians, celebrating this new reality of not only God with us, but us with God. In the 5th century, times were tough: plagues, pestilence, economic uncertainty – sound familiar? A devastating earthquake struck Vienna. The Bishop got active. On Ascension Day in 470, he sent the clergy and people out into the streets, into the fields, to offer prayers for God’s grace, for relief from these bad events, for abundant crops and a return to prosperity. As the years went by, this custom of processing around the town and countryside became very popular – by the 8th century it was the practice in England, and the association of the ascension of Jesus with springtime prayers (rogations) for deliverance from pestilence and abundance in the fields was set. In England, the Ascension procession became known as the beating of the bounds – the people of the community would walk the boundaries of the parish, and boys would be bumped, or beaten, at markers along the way so they would into their old age remember the boundaries of the common lands. At the end of the procession, there would be a community party, with lots to eat and drink, to make sure everyone, poor and not-so-poor alike, would remember the occasion as one of community spirit and abundance.
These sorts of community events are sort of archaic – this one has these old, English roots, kind of quaint and kind of quirky. When I was reading up on them, several of them would end with the disclaimer, “This kind of thing isn’t needed any more. It comes from the days when people could not read, when maps were not accurate, when boundaries would be frequently in dispute.”
But I think “beating the bounds” is a very important custom for a community, today, especially a community like the one which surrounds my church – a poor, not very well developed community, a community whose landowners neglect their property, who provide poor housing for their tenants and who allow trash and blight to collect. Communities like ours forget where our boundaries lie at our peril.
I went to college in Washington, DC, where massive sections of the city were devastated by riot and fire after the assassination of Martin Luther King. For decades those neighborhoods, and others, were left to languish, and decay. Middle class people moved out; poor people moved in. The other day on the radio I heard people talking, not too happily, about “the Plan” for redevelopment of parts of the District of Columbia. “Things happen without our even knowing about them,” one woman said. She named several elementary schools. “They closed them for renovation, they told us, but then they were opened up as expensive condos. Of course there are no children left. They moved us out, and moved in rich people. That’s the Plan.” A neighborhood loses its memories of its boundaries, of its heart and soul, at its peril.
The Presiding Bishop recently released a report about an Episcopal campaign to combat domestic poverty. The Episcopal Church IS IN poor neighborhoods, she said, in and among and of them, by virtue of the buildings that were built there years ago. Can the church deliver on that promise? Can the Episcopal Church be with us in our neighborhood? Can the Episcopal Church make a difference? Can the Episcopal Church remember that the boundaries of our parish include the poor, the poorly housed, the homeless, the forgotten, the not-so-worthy needy, the crazy, the abuser, the criminal, the liar, the lonely, the lost and the unloved? Who do we have to beat to get them to remember THOSE boundaries?
During this Ascensiontide, we remember that not only is God among us, in the person of Jesus, but through the ascension of Jesus into heaven, WE are now among God. Jesus, who has walked these very neighborhood streets – Pleasant Street and Green Street, Warren Avenue and Main Street – has now taken all of this reality of our neighborhood, and neighborhoods like it, with him. Through Jesus, this is now God’s reality, too. God KNOWS PleasantGreen, just as God knows you, and me.