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Ascension Day has always held a special place in my heart, as I was made Deacon on the Feast of the Ascension in 2006. The Gospel account of the Ascension that sticks out most for me, and still directs my ministry today, is that of St. Luke: “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”(Luke 24: 50-53).

The Ascension Window, Church of the Redeemer, Bloor St., TorontoThe Ascension Window, Church of the Redeemer, Bloor St., TorontoOne of my professors during my days at the seminary at Huron University College, Canon Todd Townshend (now the Dean of Theology at Huron University College), made a point of emphasizing that in Luke’s account of the Ascension, Jesus blessed His followers as he withdrew from them and ascended. Today, that blessing extends to us. The ministries we undertake are not done in vain, but are blessed by our Lord (and empowered by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost).

The Ascension marks the beginning of an ‘in-between’ time; an ‘in-between time’ within which we—the Church of Christ today—live out our Christian life and work. The Ascension marks the conclusion of Christ’s earthly ministry and inaugurates this ‘in-between’ time until Christ’s promised return; until, as NT Wright regularly reminds us—notably in his book “Surprised By Hope” —Heaven comes to earth and Christ returns in glory.

But, in the meantime, we followers of Christ are here on earth as signposts pointing to the promised return of our ascended Lord by the various ministries that we undertake. Our ministries are not carried out so as to ‘earn’ salvation; so that when we die God will give us a pat on the back and send us up to Heaven to float around on a cloud. No, our ministries are a response to our risen and ascended Lord. Christ has conquered death forever by his resurrection, and has promised to return to resurrect us too, bodily, as heaven comes to earth. How can we not share this Good News?

So, if we are to share this Good News in this ‘in-between’ time on earth, signified by the Ascension, how are we to do it? The Rev’d. Canon Dr. Tim Elliot, who recently was a speaker at a Clergy Conference in the Diocese of Huron, entreats us to ask three questions to help us in the discernment of our baptismal ministry (both individually and collectively): What am I good at? What do I like to do? What needs doing?

As we reflect on the things we are good at and the things we like to do, each of can begin to recognize the gifts God has given us to carry out what needs to be done in Christ’s name. And all to glorify God in this ‘in-between’ time. Since God has created each of us as unique, our gifts will be uniquely ours. Thanks be to God for this!

Notice that at the end of Luke’s account of the Ascension, the disciples “…were continually in the temple blessing God.” We know they didn’t stay there. They came together, offering themselves to God in worship so that God might transform their hearts in His love. Then they went out from there and utilized their unique God given gifts to proclaim the risen and ascended Lord. And the risen and ascended Christ blessed their work and God transformed the world—as God continues to do today through us!

As we celebrate the Ascension may we, the Church today, have hearts open to God’s transformation in worship, minds keen to discern our ministries each according to our unique gifts, and the courage to be the signposts pointing to Christ’s resurrection and promised return. We can do this, together. Because we know that the ascended Christ blesses our ministries until that time at which our Lord stands again on earth in the fullness of his Glory. Until that time at which, by His mercy, we experience the fullness of the resurrection and all things are made new!

The Rev’d Daniel Bowyer is an Associate of Holy Cross Priory, Toronto, and the Rector of St. Paul’s, Stratford, Diocese of Huron.

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Resurrection of the Dead on Enamel PieceResurrection of the Dead on Enamel Piece. Limoges artwork, at Victoria and Albert Museum, London, photographed by Marie-Lan Nguyen.

The Christian way has been one of constant challenge from the beginning. The account in St. Luke’s Gospel, 24:1-10, of the women going to the tomb of Jesus after the Passover to ensure that his body was properly treated with spices tells of their encounter with two men in dazzling robes. The women’s reaction is at first fear. Everything they held dear was being brought into question. “Why seek the living among the dead?” was the challenge relayed to them by these heavenly beings. All the traditional customs to which they were still clinging, their lack of understanding of what Jesus had told them, their inability to make sense out of it all—everything was challenged. No wonder they fell on their faces in fear! The women did nevertheless act on the challenge and went straight to find the others in the community.

Two thousand years later, we also so often “seek the living among the dead.” We cling to what is familiar, the things we were taught as children, practices we have taken on as part of our Christian lives—often never thinking about them in relation to new circumstances in our lives. Our tendency to cling to the familiar is all too typical and can lead to a stultifying of our faith and an unwillingness to venture into new depths of understanding. The world around us is in constant flux and new ideas and situations present themselves without cessation. We tend to stay faithful to what we know; like those women at the tomb we carry our spices to honor the dead. Yet Jesus shocks us out of our comfort zone and challenges us to seek His presence, risen and glorified, and to find Him in the reality of what is happening around us.

The celebration of Easter brings to each of us that same message: “Why seek the living among the dead?” The challenge of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is that we constantly face up to what Jesus is calling us to do—and while He and His love for us never change, the path of discipleship continually opens up new vistas and challenges. We do well to ask “What am I clinging to? What is Jesus calling me to explore? How do I experience resurrection at this moment?” The scriptures often present us with a word that dazzles us as those heavenly beings dazzled the women at the tomb. Let us not miss the moment of challenge but rather be awake and alert to what the resurrected Lord Jesus wants us to see and act on now.

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“The Cross, the shape of Christ’s dying, his agony and our reproach; the utter fallibility of everything in this world which one day must perish, even the sacred things we most cherish. But it is too, the shape or our hope, recalling the place where God redeemed the death of his son, and forgave us for it and lifted us with him to a wholly new kind of life which can never be taken away.

The Cross is a new plan of existence that cuts across our little tracks, one that is beyond death itself, yet entered through it. It is beyond pain, and yet discovered in pain; beyond all defeat and betrayal, yet meeting us precisely there. This is the Cross of Christ in the midst of which we meet, which he holds out to us, at that busy intersection where his life and ours are intertwined, where sometimes we see his body hanging and sometimes see only the bare wood because he is no longer there, he is risen.”

The Very Rev’d Francis B. Sayer, sometime Dean of the Cathedral of St. Peter & St. Paul, Washington, D.C. From his book To Stand in the Cross, Seabury Press, 1978.

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Alexamenos graffitoThe Alexamenos graffito, a satirical representation of the Christian worship, depicting a man worshiping a crucified donkey. This is a modern-day tracing of a photograph from "Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries" (1898) by Rodolfo Lanciani.To most of us the answer seems obvious: Jesus. But there is more to it than that, as illustrated by the two illustrations that accompany this article. One is the only physical remnant we have of an ancient crucifixion—the ankle bone of a young Jew named Yehohanan, who was crucified not long after Jesus himself. We know that Yehohanan was crucified because those who retrieved his body could not get the nail out of his ankle and so buried him with it. The other is a photo of a graffito on the Palatine Hill in Rome which dates to about the year 200. It depicts a man worshiping a crucified donkey, presumably Jesus, and is accompanied by an ancient “flame” which alleges that “Alexamenos is worshipping [his] God”. Taken together they remind us that Good Friday has two, not just one aspect: the first, its physical horror; the other, its somewhat ambiguous meaning.

Yehohanan’s crucifixion has been endlessly studied, but it is a reminder that Jesus’ execution was by no means exceptional. The Romans used it for at least 700 years before Constantine banned it out of respect for the Saviour. In the first century BC, during the revolt of Spartacus, 6,000 slaves were crucified at intervals all along the road from Capua to Rome.

By Rubén Betanzo S. - Hombre_de_Hombre_de_"Giv'at_ha-Mivtar".jpg, Composite illustration by Rubén Betanzo S. at commons.wikimedia.org.Today the Alexamenos graffito is of interest in part because it was drawn at a time when people could still see crucifixions; Christian representations of crucifixion began to be made only some centuries after crucifixion itself had been banned. But the graffito is more important than that: it reminds us that what was important about Jesus’ crucifixion was not its horror (then all too familiar) but what it meant. Its original artist thought it had a meaning: Alexamenos’ religion is foolish. But in saying so he called attention to the fact that the only reason Alexamenos worshipped this strange creature was because he too thought it had meaning. It is the meaning that explains why Good Friday is “good”.

We don’t know the details of what Alexamenos thought, but we do know that it was positive. The Church’s faith is that whatever happened on Calvary was “for us and for our salvation”. Beyond that, there’s never been any formal declaration as to its exact instrumentality. Even in the New Testament we can see authors struggling to come to terms with the meaning: how do you explain the crucifixion of the Messiah even if he did rise from the dead? We won’t worry here about the details; what matters is the consistent claim that all of it—_all_ of it—was for us and for our salvation; and not just for our salvation as a group, but for our salvation as individuals. That is what makes Good Friday good. Keep this in mind, and remember that today the Collect of the Day applies especially to you:

Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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The liturgy for this day includes the ritual of foot washing. Many of us participate in that part of the liturgy.

Washing the Apostles' Feet (top); Last Supper (bottom.) Panel from the Maesta Altarpiece of Siena, 1308-1311. Artist: Duccio, di Buoninsegna, d. 1319.If one were to write an icon for this Holy Day the icon would include Jesus, Peter, the other disciples, a basin, water jug, towel, and a table on which the Passover meal was set. I would paint Peter as both indignant and wistful – as one wanting Jesus’ love and fearing it. And the other disciples might be portrayed as surprised, annoyed, confused or loving.

What is the message of such an icon?

If we were to engage in the liturgical act of washing the feet of another, or having our own feet washed, some of us might feel awkward, embarrassed, or reluctant; or we might welcome the tender touch of hospitality. Some fear touch. It is good to accept a loving act – a life-giving gift and an invitation to share in Jesus’ ministry of grace.

In John’s gospel account of the Passover meal, (John 13.1-15), the foot washing happens before the giving of the bread and wine. The washing is a preparation for receiving the gift of Jesus’ life. It is a willingness to open one’s self to God’s loving touch. The disciples did allow Jesus to wash their feet and to be their servant, teacher and Sovereign. Jesus then imparts the gift of his life to them: “This is my Body broken for you; this is my Blood poured out for you. Take and remember. Do as I have done for you.”

As we accept the life of Jesus into our lives, we are enlivened and we shall seek to serve others in the name of Jesus. Many opportunities are given – the offering of food and other material goods; words of encouragement; care of the vulnerable; loving touches; messages of hope.

The actress, Marlene Dietrich wrote a “kitchen slogan” which reads: “Don’t complain in the morning about a day’s work. It is so wonderful to go to trouble for the people one loves.”

As we share in the solemn rites of Holy Week, may we be open to experience God’s immense love through the powerful message of Holy Scripture; through the loving ministries of Jesus, our Sovereign’s disciples; as we receive the Eucharistic bread and wine; and as we hear Jesus’ invitation to serve and care for one another.

“So let the love of Jesus come and set thy soul ablaze, to give and give, and give again, what God hath given thee; to spend thyself nor count the cost; to serve right gloriously the God who gave the worlds that are, and all that are to be.”
​(from a hymn by Bishop Geoffrey A. Studdert-Kennedy)

Br. David Bryon Hoopes, OHC, is Prior of Holy Cross Priory, Toronto

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