Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
May 17, 2015
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch the video version.)
Over the past week I’ve had a couple of opportunities to recall my time in New York City. I love Christ Church Cranbrook and I love you. As many as I know you and even those I don’t know, I love you. And I love Detroit. I love the energy here, but there is a Manhattan-sized hole in my soul after having left New York City. I don’t want to go back, but I live by certain memories of being there. So on this night in which we’re talking about my time in New York City, I had this little moment of reminiscence that centers what I want to talk about today. When I would take my daughter across town to school we would often walk, if it was nice weather, we’d walk across town on 14th Street, and then I would drop her off at school and I’d go into Union Square and I’d get on a subway car and take it right back to 9th Avenue where I would come up and then go and teach my first lecture. There was this moment where I would be walking her to school as a parent, and as I was going back to my lecture on the subway, I would try to enter the persona of being a priest.
One exercise I used to do is I would pray in the subway car. I would begin to feel as if this spiritual light would emanate until it filled the whole car, and I was praying not only for myself and for what I wanted to say and to God, but I was praying for every person on that car that God would bless them no matter what they were doing that day. This was sometimes challenging because subway cars are a little microcosm of New York City. There was always the business man going to do battle on Wall Street, looking impervious in his suit. There was the panhandler who was trying an old, tired story to talk you out of a donation. But there are also people that were in the midst of incredible transformation. So much life in one car. Often somebody would be in the depths of despair next to people who were experiencing the greatest joy of their life. So I’d feel this prayer emanate to all of them and I would ask God to bless them where they were, and to bless them as they were, and to bless them no matter who they were.
It was powerful because I think in many ways New York is known for many things, but one of them is not as a place of spiritual transformation. It’s a place to get your career off the ground. It’s a place to suddenly live on your own and test yourself. It’s a place to be inspired or to spend a little money. New York has always had this kind of amazing spiritual power, for me, because the tension always was to connect that time that we all lived in with eternity and the bodies we all inhabited with the spirit. This was a challenge, but often times I was surprised at how that connection would occur.
One time Clair and I were taking our daughters home from our favorite Chinese restaurant and we came around the corner to where our apartment was, and it was a bit of a dark street. It was just around dusk. It was a little bit of an early, kind of that it was warm but there was a bit of darkness in the air. I’m not sure if it was early spring or early fall but it was somewhere in that time. On the street, walking away from us was this young man stark naked. I did the sensible thing when you see someone stark naked in New York. I grabbed my child and we said, “We’re going to cross the street.” We crossed the street and got a little physical distance from him because we wanted to give him room to express himself. Thankfully, he was walking away from us so I didn’t have to do too much explaining to the girls. I fixated on the fact that he had such neatly trimmed hair. I was trying to figure out, why am I fixated on his hair? It’s so beautiful combed. Anyway, we went in and I went to sleep. We had a night and this happens in New York. This is part of the thrill of being in the city. You never know what’s going to happen.
Then the next day I looked out the window on the street where he had been walking and I saw this woman who was about 20 years older than he was. She was waiting on the street and just standing on the sidewalk and looking. Her eyes kept on sweeping both directions. The entire day, she waited. When I came back from teaching a class or chapel, I’d look out the window and there she would be. This went on for three days. The next day she was there as early as I got up and she was there at night. It suddenly occurred to me the thought that this woman was probably his mother. She was looking and waiting and hoping that he would appear where he had disappeared. I never approached her because I didn’t want to be wrong. There are plenty of times in which New York has things that go together but not for a logical reason. In my heart, I felt that that was the case and so I began to pray for her until I didn’t see her again.
What is the ascension? Today we celebrate the feast day when the body of Jesus ascends to the Father. We are here, left waiting. Jesus has ascended. The body has lived its ministry to the fullness of what God called it to be, and now Jesus’ body has ascended and you and I are here waiting. Our waiting is not the kind of desperate longing that that mother had for her child. It’s a deeper longing that is knit together with the realization that though Christ’s body has ascended, you and I meet his body in each other. We are the body of Christ. As real as Christ’s body, his historical body ascends, so now the body of Christ that you and I are knit together as a Christian community that is just as real and just as present. So that now that the body has ascended, you and I meet Christ in each other. From now on, we can no longer see ourselves as just bodies in motion on a train, or people walking on the street. You and I now meet each other as part and parcel of the same Jesus who died for us and is raised.
That is the meaning of the ascension. That is what our scriptures are testifying to and bearing witness to particularly in our gospel, when Jesus says to His disciples that He has come so that they would know the scriptures and know the power of his forgiveness and his reconciliation. He tells them to wait for the spirit, but in between he has opened, we read, their minds, so that they understand the scriptures. Earlier this week I asked at the Bible study, I said, “What does it mean to have our minds opened to see the scriptures?” The class and I struggled with it, but I think what it means to have our minds opened to see the scriptures is to see everything that happens through the lens of that Christ who came as body and spirit to reconcile time and eternity, heaven and earth, and sin and salvation so that we would be knit together by His mercy and become the body of Christ. To look at scripture through that lens is to clarify what it means to live practically as a Christian today.
The painting I have before you today is Salvador Dali’s The Ascension of Christ from 1958. It’s here that Dali has had his religious moment that I talked about a few weeks ago in which he suddenly sees this confluence of the world around him and the world of faith. So Dali begins to recreate the realism of the masters of the Renaissance because he wants to capture again their power to bring things to light. So he paints this painting with complete realism, and in many ways he’s taking up on themes that you see in the history of western art. For example, it was common in the Renaissance period to depict the ascension in such a way that all you would see were Jesus’ feet in the picture. So the disciples would be there blown away, like, “What?!” Like this and all you would see were these little feet as they’re escaping the portrait. It’s quite dear. It’s quite beautiful. Dali takes that same idea of seeing Jesus’ feet, but instead of placing it in front of the viewer to see from the side, he places it so that it’s as if you and I are looking up at a Christ who is ascending and we’re seeing His feet as the last thing we see.
He makes these feet dirty because he wants to communicate to us this powerful message about the body, which is that Christianity is not the enemy of embodiment. Christianity is the fulfillment of embodiment. Everything we are and everything we have, our complicated histories, our broken family dynamics, our hopes and dreams as a people, our limitations and fragility as a community, all of these things are like the dirt that’s clinging to Jesus’ feet. And even like the feet themselves, all of that is being taken up into Heaven and blessed by God as the place of redemption.
Like the Renaissance painters, Dali is using the circle which was always a symbol of God’s infinity and in many cases the Trinity. Sometimes it would be depicted as three colors to depict this incredible light that comes from God. But for Dali, he wants to create this idea that that circle, that inner life of God is incredibly dynamic. So he puts two circles coming together, which can mean from one perspective nuclear fission in which the atoms come and collide until there’s an explosion. Or from another perspective, this could be cells dividing as the origin of life. And finally, he has the pistols of the sunflower, which he saw as one of the confirmations on the earth, the kind of emblem of what it means to be completely turned to Christ. Just as the sunflower is always turned to the sun, so you and I live by always turning ourselves to Christ. Just as the sunflower is perfect and ordered in the seed it spreads, so you and I live lives that are productive by keeping ourselves turned to Christ.
Finally, there is one other movement that I’ll draw to you today. The Jesus who is ascending is ascending into the arms of his mother. This Dali paints as Mary, his sequence is a little bit out of whack if you note Christian narratives, right, because Mary Assumption comes after Jesus’ ascension. But Dali is talking about the confluence of space and time and time and eternity. So Mary is welcoming her son home. Her son has no longer died but lives and now is alive forever and Mary is welcoming him and experiencing this joy. Coming from Mary is this power that is endless and coming to create this dynamism all over. That’s the bird that is the symbol of the spirit. This and all of this is what Dali is trying to convey in The Ascension.
For years, Christian theologians believed that the ascension was an encouragement to lift our hearts higher than the world around us so that we wouldn’t be trapped by the world. One of the benefits of this painting, and one of the ways it helps this sermon along in terms of the main point is the love that binds us to Christ and to each other is not something that is above us, but it’s the intensification of the love we already have. It’s the complete mystical, powerful intensification of that love. It’s the deepening of that love, the making of it more powerful than it might be so that you and I would know Christ as He is know. So that you and I would see Christ in all because Christ is in all. Who is Christ for you? What do your feet look like? Who is waiting to embrace you at the end of eternity? These are the questions we have to ask ourselves on ascension.