In the four weeks I have been back in the US, the list of “persons of interest” in the Trump circle seems to have grown day-by-day: Michael Flynn, Jeff Sessions, Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Roger Stone, Felix Sater, Jared Kushner, Michael Cohen, and Boris Epshteyn… I may have missed a few.
Give the strange pro-Russian remarks by Trump during his campaign, followed by a string of overtures and both semi-public and clandestine meetings with Russian officials since then, it’s small wonder that a climate of consternation and outright worry has descended over Foggy Bottom (AKA “the Swamp”). To which concern must now be added the current unraveling of decades-old traditional alliances with European allies Germany and France and other NATO members. It might be well to remember that NATO was established to deter Russian aggression following World War II.
Over the past several years political and diplomatic uneasiness rose exponentially following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its covert invasion and tactical occupation of east Ukraine, evidence of Russian email hacking, its interference in elections in the USA, France, and apparently elsewhere, Vladimir Putin’s unflinching support of Syria dictator Bashar al-Assad, including his bombing of anti-ISIS rebels and attacks on civilians, and now alleged rooting around the inner regions of the Trump White House.
Regrading human and civil rights in Russia, the world’s attention was briefly focused on the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, but dozens of other political opponents, diplomats, reporters, and civil rights activists have been similarly murdered during the Putin years in a display of ruthless autocratic rule. Even a partial list must include
Denis N. Voronenkov, lawmaker and Putin critic (Mar. 23, 2017)
Sergei Krivov, consular duty commander at the Russian Consulate in New York (2016)
Boris Nemtsov, physicist, statesman and liberal politician (2015)
Vladmir Kara-Murza, activist and writer, poisoned, recovered (2015)
Boris Berezovsky, business oligarch, government official, engineer and mathematician, member of the Russian Academy of Sciences (2013)
Alexander Perepilichny, businessman, whistleblower (2012)
Sergei Magnitsky, tax attorney (2009)
Stanislav Markelov, human rights lawyer and Anastasia Baburova, journalist (2009)
Natalia Estemirova, journalist (2009),
Anna Politkovskaya, journalist (2006)
Alexander Litvinenko, former KGB agent who accused Putin of blowing up an apartment block and ordering the murder of Anna Politkovskaya (2006)
Paul Klebnikov, American investigative journalist, editor in chief of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine (2004)
Sergei Yushenkov, politician killed as he tried to gather evidence proving that Putin was behind the bombing of the residential apartment block (2003)
And recently, Putin’s main opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, was found guilty of embezzlement and given a five-year suspended sentence which barred him from running next year against Putin (Feb. 8, 2017).
As Trump sinks alliances with democratic allies in western Europe but praises strongmen such as Recep Erdogan, the proudly murderous Filipino president, Rodrigo Duterte, and most ostentatiously of all, Vladimir Putin himself (alternatively prime minister and president since 1999), how could the question NOT arise – who’s actually calling the shots in the White House? And, more importantly, why?
Today, Christians in many parts of the world celebrate the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus, otherwise known and celebrated as Ascension Thursday. And there is something to ponder in that affirmation we make so often, “We believe… that he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again to judge the living and the dead.
Apart from the disappearance of Jesus from the visible stage of history, the recurrent evangelical frenzy about his imminent return is easy to ridicule after the disappointment of yet another failed prophecy. But even eccentric, late nineteenth-century Christian fantasies testified to the enduring belief in the Ascension itself, however exaggerated and distorted that belief sometimes became. And still does at times of crisis and fear.
Matthew’s gospel does not describe the Ascension, but reminds us of Jesus’ promise to be with us
until the end of time. According to St. Luke, the Ascension occurred between Easter and the Feast of Pentecost, which for Christians now celebrates the coming, the parousia of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, into the Church – into the hearts and minds of the early disciples and of all disciples. But that lies ahead. Here, like the disciples on the hillside, we are left wondering about Jesus’ ascent into heaven. Did he go up into the sky? Is he someplace up above the clouds, somewhere over the rainbow, perhaps? Or are we still looking in the wrong place, or at least the wrong way, as the angel said.
Centuries ago, perhaps even decades ago, the idea of an ascent up among the stars would not have seemed absurd. It framed the epilogue of many filmed “Lives of Christ” popular in the mid-twentieth century (which seemed to be shown annually in my grade school). Today, when exploring space is as real in fact as it is on TV and in the movies, and the most distant parts of the universe are as familiar to us as our old neighborhood thanks to the Hubble space telescope and its successors, it’s far more important to understand clearly what Christians actually believe and what that belief means.
To begin with, the Ascension does not mean that Jesus went into orbit like some ancient astronaut, but that a cloud hid him from their sight. The Ascension was never a crude, physical doctrine that asserted that Jesus was hanging around in the air, or “up” on some other planet, much less out in space somewhere. Belief in the Ascension affirms the Cosmic Lordship, or we might say today, the Leadership, of Christ spiritually, but also sacramentally. It means that Jesus Christ, raised from the dead and exalted by God, has fully entered into the fundamental reality of Creation itself. Christ’s presence, St. Paul tells us, is now co-extensive with the universe. God, he says, “has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” [Eph. 1:22-23]. There is no “where” that Jesus Christ is not present.
This is the famous pleroma passage, which one translation has as “the fullness of him who fills the universe in all its parts.” However we interpret it, clearly St Paul portrays Christ as universal Lord, majestic in triumph over every cosmic force and principle, over the angels and every spiritual power. To celebrate the Ascension is to affirm that Jesus has become Lord of the Cosmos.
But the Ascension is also the Feast of Christ as Lord of Time, that is of history as lived time, not only past, but present and future: “Christ yesterday, today, and tomorrow” [Heb. 13:8].
There is more – and this is even more important. Paul writes to his Christian disciples at Ephesus that it is this same Christ Jesus who is the head of the Church, which is filled with his Spirit. And through that Spirit we are all members of the one body of Christ, the people of God. Christ is present to the world especially in the lives and works of those guided by and filled with his Spirit.
The meaning of the Ascension is the completion of the paschal mystery, the return of Jesus to the heart of God, the triumph of innocence over the guilt of the world, the final victory of life over death, of grace over sin. It is the culminating moment of the passage of Christ to the Father, but also of salvation history itself. Yet the Ascension is also preparation and prelude, the necessary movement prior to the “descent” of the Spirit, the beginning of the transformation of the world’s history and its very structure, a spiritual transformation leading to universal jubilation. That’s what the Church ultimately is.
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, “ it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” [John 16:7]. And, the text goes on, “When the Spirit of truth comes, it will guide you into all the truth…. Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. …I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
Jesus has not gone away anywhere. He is present anywhere and everywhere, hidden from our sight only by clouds of inattention. For we too often look in the wrong places or we simply look wrongly. When we see with the eyes of faith, or, as St. Paul had it, “having the eyes of our hearts enlightened,” we see him in many ways. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins said,
the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is–
Chríst–for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
[“As Kingfishers Catch Fire”]
So having celebrated the Ascension of Jesus, let us return with the disciples to that upper room to prepare for the advent of the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit who will enlighten our minds and warm our hearts and lead us into all truth and all joy. Because, as St. Matthew tells us, we still have a lot of work ahead of us before Jesus returns in glory.
Yesterday afternoon, I had a little fender-bender with a lady who was driving a very big SUV. As we waited patiently for the police to arrive (45 minutes later), I earned that she had immigrated some years ago from western Ukraine, where the fighting with the Russians and their sympathizers had been largely absent. But I could not help but think of the years of fierce struggle between Orthodox and Catholic Christians over the recovery of churches and other property seized under the rule of the Soviet Union.
I suspect that my sense of regret at what Christians have done to one another out of zeal for doctrinal and behavioral orthodoxy was amplified by the having witnessed the previous two weeks of splendid and highly baroque celebrations in Rome – canonizations included. As I could not help but recall last night, the face of the institutional church is historically at least two-sided.
The origins of Christian intolerance are ancient: we can detect the roots in the Easter readings from the Acts of the Apostles we have been hearing – the conflict between the Hellenized converts and the Jewish disciples that led to the development of the order of Deacons, and today we learn of the growing chasm between the Hellenizers and Judaizers that would imperil for unity of the infant Church for decades, until the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 and again more thoroughly in 135.
The inclusive vision of Barnabas and Paul would ultimately prevail, one Paul would articulate in his letters to the Christian Galatians and Romans. In Christ, he had come to realize, salvation by obedience to law had been supplanted. The new covenant is one of grace and mercy, of greater inclusion and expansion than ever imagined. All are welcome.
Over and over, however, Christians have been tempted to retreat to the comfort and safety of religious law. And they have all too often fallen. Every human society needs rules of belonging and procedure, but the drive toward regulation too easily decays into an obsession with control, and control too easily leads to rigidity and intolerance. Intolerance produces persecution, and persecution relies on terrorism, torture, and ultimately execution. The sad history of post-Reformation Europe in this respect hardly needs recalling. Martyrs abound on all sides.
How far all this is from what we hear in Jesus’ words — “Anyone who lives in me and I in him will produce abundantly, for apart from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not live in me is like a withered branch….”
So as the US president heads toward Rome to meet Pope Francis, let us pray that the life of the Spirit will well up vibrantly in him and all of us, just as we are witnessing outdoors at this lovely time of year, when rising life erupts so gloriously in leaf and blossom. May distrust, suspicion, triumphalism, and bigotry wither on the vine. And as we approach the 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation, may all our works bear the abundant fruit of mercy, peace, and reconciliation.
Having braved throngs of small children and big adults to see the latest Marvel-Disney installment of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (Vol. 2), it occurred to me about halfway through the film that I was witnessing either a blatant and potentially offensive religious rip-off or a brilliant bit of parody, or possibly a prophetic satire aimed at simplistic Christian incarnationalism. (See what comes of too much education?)
Apart from kill-joy spoilerism, suffice it to say that the main plot, imbedded among a host of hyperkinetic subplots, focuses on the siring of a divine-human hybrid on an unsuspecting young woman in a rural backwater by what appears to be an all-powerful celestial and seemingly immortal if not exactly eternal Being who longs for a Son with Whom He can rule the universe. Said semi-divine Son doesn’t have a clue who He really is and in fact is taken to be a common thief and consort of rabble until His awakening. (It’s clear He’s awakened because His eyes go strange. A sure sign.) Happily for orthodox Christians, the theology is di-theistic, not Trinitarian. The Holy Spirit is nowhere to be found. Maybe…
As satire, willful or otherwise, the film powerfully puts down the notion of a humanesque divinity intent on ruling the universe by actually merging with it… a sort of crazy-eyed pantheism. In a possible glance toward Process theology, this is no omniscient, really almighty, infinite, actually eternal, and ubiquitous spiritual presence, but an evolving deity… and not a very nice one at that. But in a deft move borrowed from STAR WARS and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, the locus of divine power is luckily found, whacked, and all ends more or less well in a paean to true fatherhood (motherhood having been sacrificed to the needs of plot development).
All in all, it was not the most appropriate film to watch on a Mother’s Day afternoon, but it did transcend MOMMIE DEAREST. It was also a lot of hyperkinetic fun.
Coming home from Ireland last week, I expected a little more excitement than the chuckling of pheasants looking for a handout as I looked out the back door every morning. My expectations were more than fulfilled. So far as rapid political developments, chaos, and confusion are concerned, I’ve now had more than enough for this year. At least we have yet to see the pulpits of the country turned into political soapboxes.
So I feel comfortable enough turning to the scriptures of the day, which tend to focus on ministry, of all things.
The Letter of Peter speaks of “living stones,” a host of human bricks, if you will, resting on a single, unshakeable foundation, the cornerstone that is Christ. In the gospel, Jesus speaks of “many rooms,“ — the Greek word is monē, a place to stay, to dwell, living room. One can hardly avoid thinking of the image in the Book of Revelation, where the City of God is measured. And it’s really big. Enough room for everyone.
The most significant notion comes in the reading from Acts, where Luke describes what will be a long development of ministry in the Church, a diversity of ministries as St. Paul will later insist. “…[Christ’s] gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature humanity, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ…” [Eph. 4:11-13]
The word “deacon,” diakonos, is used about 30 times in Christian scripture, but in the Acts of the Apostles, it is never used as a title. Most of the time it simply means “servant” and often “minister.” Jesus seems to have used it in both senses — as in the Gospel of Matthew, where he says, “whoever would be great among you must be your diakonos, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” [Matt. 20:26b-28].
What “deacon” meant in the world of Jesus was much more and much less than “servant.” Minister comes closer — a diakonos was the personal representative of important persons, someone sent to act in their place. These seven deacons were hardly table-waiters. From the beginning they were emissaries of the apostles, representatives of Christ himself who came to serve, not to be served. The men and also women selected for this service, like Phoebe, whom Paul mentions warmly in his epistle to the Romans, [Rom. 16:1], were to be “deeply spiritual and prudent.” More importantly, as in the case of Stephen, the most important of the seven and the first Christian martyr, someone “filled with faith.” This Sunday it’s helpful to recall that we know the names of other important women deacons in the early Church – Saints Macrina, Theodora, and Olympia among them. It is estimated by scholars that in the first millennium of Church history, there were about 50,000 women deacons in the Eastern Church alone. Over 100 of their names are known. Something to think about on Mother’s Day! [http://www.womenpriests.org/deacons/]
In the house of God, we are all to one extent or another deacons, ministers, building blocks. And faith is keystone that rests securely on Christ. The Letter of Peter reminds us of this forcefully: “Whoever puts their faith in that rock shall never be shaken.” The author goes on to remind us twice more that we are, by that faith, and as living stones in the house of God, a “holy priesthood,” a “royal priesthood.” The Church as a whole and thus in all its parts, its “bricks,” is priestly, just as it is prophetic. That character is rooted in Christ and will never falter or fail. That cornerstone is the foundation that remains unshaken, even when time and trouble require some tuck-pointing of the rest. Sometimes, even quite a lot of it. But there is no shortage of bricks if we know where and how to look.
Our faith and our ministry stand or fall on our love of Christ — the closer we are to Jesus, the stronger, the stronger and more effective our faith, the richer, more diverse, and more productive our ministries. Whatever else may happen, however challenged we are by events, whenever we are discouraged and disappointed by the frailty of the living stones that make up God’s house, we need only turn again to Christ, the cornerstone, to renew our faith.