This week one of the principle feasts of the Church passed by, for the most part unnoticed and unobserved. The Feast of the Ascension comes each year 40 days after Easter, always on a Thursday, a day that most of us are not concerned with activities or feasts of the Church.
Maybe because of that, the reading from Acts today repeats this strange story of the resurrected Jesus being lifted into the sky and finally disappearing from sight behind a cloud.
We could spend a good bit of time pondering this odd event, wondering if it is literally true, asking what it means for us – as did the disciples who witnessed this final earthly appearance of Jesus.
Apparently long after Jesus had disappeared beyond the clouds, the disciples continued to gaze up at the sky in wonder and perhaps disbelief.
Their reveries were interrupted with a gentle rebuke from two angels. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” they ask.
That question indicates to us that the meaning and purpose of the Ascension is not to be found in explanations of how this spectacular event could have literally happened. It is not to be found by looking toward heaven, but by paying attention here on earth.
The last verse in this passage from Acts gives us another clue to the meaning of this story.
The disciples have returned to Jerusalem, where they stayed in an upper room “together with certain women, including Mary, the mother of Jesus.” Other translations say that the disciples were “in the company of women.”
There are lessons for Christian faith and life that we can draw from these two verses – one addressed to the men of Galilee gazing too long at the distant heavens; and the other to the company of women, who have always been at the center of the Church, but whose contributions have not been as clearly recorded as the men’s.
Women traditionally have had too much work to do maintaining the daily needs of the body of the faithful to be concerned with grand heavenly ascensions.
And yet, for most of us, it was women – our mothers and grandmothers, our aunts and teachers – who first introduced us to and nurtured us in the faith.
In the history of Christianity what have been considered the “major” keys of the faith have often been played by men; while women primarily have been relegated to the seemingly less important “minor” keys.
In her essay “In Praise of Watercolors,” Mary Gordon says that she finally found her voice as a writer in the minor key. Gordon writes about the affairs and issues of daily life, not about epic stories and heroic quests. Not about great truths in the distant heavens, but about the close intimacies and needs of ordinary existence.
It took her a while to realize that the so-called minor key is not of minor importance.
“I was told by male critics that my writing was ‘exquisite, lovely, like a watercolor,’” she writes. “They, of course, were painting in oils. They were doing the important work.
“There are people in the world who derive no small pleasure from the game of ‘major’ and ‘minor,’” Gordon says. “They think that no major work can be painted in watercolor.”
After years of struggling to write “major” works, Gordon finally discovered “that what I loved in writing was not distance, but radical closeness; not the violence of the bizarre, but the complexity of the quotidian” or day-to-day.
“My subject as a writer has far more to do with family happiness that with the music of the celestial spheres,” she says. “I don’t know what the nature of the universe is, but I have a good ear. What it hears best are daily rhythms, for that is what I value.”
Largely because of writers like Gordon, these daily rhythms of faith and life have gained validity and recognition in recent years. But there are still those who overlook or even denigrate what Gordon has learned to value.
An article in The Living Church, a weekly church publication, is a good example. In it, a priest proclaims that the work of maintaining the church – caring for its buildings and grounds, washing linens, polishing silver, setting the altar – is not real ministry.
This priest should read Kathleen Norris’ book, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women’s Work, in which she uncovers “the lowly truth that we human beings must wash the dishes after we eat and drink.
“The chalice, which has held the very blood of Christ, is no exception.”
Or perhaps that priest should hear what one Altar Guild member I know says about her work.
“Superficially, it involves polishing silver and brass, washing and ironing linens, arranging flowers,” she says.
“But when I start setting out the Eucharistic vessels in a certain order, with spotless white linen cloths in their proper places, the act becomes something more – a simple form of worship.”
And, I would add, real ministry indeed.
Kathleen Norris continues, “laundry, liturgy and women’s work all serve to ground us in the world, and they need not grind us down. Our daily tasks, whether we perceive them as drudgery, or essential, life-supporting work, do not define who we are.
“But they do have a considerable spiritual import, and their significance for Christian theology, the way they come together in the fabric of the faith, is not often appreciated.
“It is daily tasks, daily acts of love and worship that serve to remind us that religion is not strictly an intellectual pursuit,” she says. “Christian faith is a way of life, not an impregnable fortress made up of ideas; not a philosophy; not a grocery list of beliefs.”
The truth is that most of us, male and female, spend the great majority of our lives in this way. It is in the quotidian, common place, ordinary routines of our everyday existence that our faith is lived.
Even the apostle Paul, whose thunderous oratory and fiery theological arguments are definitely in the “major key,” recognizes this truth. That is why in the middle of his letter to the Christians in Rome, an oil painting of an epistle, we read these passages:
“Treat everyone with kindness; never be condescending, but make real friends with the poor.”
“Love is the one thing that cannot hurt your neighbor; that is why it is the answer to every one of the commandments.”
“If a person’s faith is not strong enough, welcome him all the same without starting an argument.”
And finally, “Treat each other in the same friendly manner that Christ treated you.”
Respecting the dignity of every person; treating one another with love; welcoming those who are different; being friendly and Christ-like to all we meet – these are simple, quiet ways of living out our faith.
And as we follow these quiet admonitions, we find they lead us to the major truth of the incarnation – that Christ is to be found in the ordinary, daily routines of our lives.
Today we hear the story of Jesus’ departure from the earth. At his last supper before the great events of his death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus prays, “I am to stay no longer in the world, but they are still in the world…I pray for them.”
And so Jesus prays for us who have been left behind. Not abandoned, but left faithfully to hear and live out the symphony of the Gospel in all of its keys and rhythms.