The mystery of life is the mystery of death and life again. We cannot live a life of meaning without facing our own death. Someone once said that our death begins with our birth, or one could say more accurately, with our conception. We grow but we also decline, and all of time is held in our palm, or perhaps God’s palm. Can we hold on to time? For how long?
It is a curious thing, this mystery of time, for time only matters if it is our own, if we live it, in it, through it. As I have journeyed in this world of time (toward my own death and new life) I have increasingly perceived through the veil of life, the thin film enshrouding us, the thin linen hiding, and perhaps protecting, the glories of Heaven. I perceive and I pierce the shroud through prayer, through the Eucharist, through love. And on the other side is glory, seen through a veil, through a dark glass, as St. Paul says.
Most of us, even agnostics and atheists, sense there is more to our own lives than the bodies that house our selves, the flesh incarnating our spirits. Unbelievers say that imagination or art or thought itself is something housed, a separate entity from the body. Beauty, truth, music, love, all reflect the spiritual side of Man. We recognize personality, that no two individuals are alike, that even twins are different in their own lives housed by flesh. Believers marvel at this extravagant and exquisite mystery, this infinite complexity of genes and cells and organisms, an ongoing festival of life borne by birth into the future, until the Second Coming of Christ and the end of time.
As a grateful Christian, I look forward to my new life, a better and more perfect life, the life meant for each one of us to live. Death is only for the body, a rebirth, an ascension. And in Heaven, in the New Jerusalem, we will be given new bodies, as promised.
I thought of these things as I visited our virtual Eucharists this morning – in Illinois, Arizona, and California. I celebrated the Ascension of Christ, with him, ascending into the light of Heaven. The last forty days I have walked with him on Earth, having risen with him on Easter morning, having left behind Joseph of Arimathea’s empty tomb, the linen cloths folded neatly. We were crucified that Friday, Christ and his creation, and the veil of the temple tore in two, the curtain lifting between Man and God. Since that historic day, 2,021 years ago, our chancels and altars are open to the faithful, the partition gone, the Holy of Holies no longer hidden, the sacrament housed in a tabernacle on an altar aflame with candles and bedecked with roses. Since that day we are able to see better, to pierce the veil between Heaven and Earth.
In Western Christianity, we take this openness, this vision, for granted. The Eastern Orthodox have retained the partition, as a wall of gleaming icons. I recall visiting the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice, today Roman Catholic, but retaining the Eastern iconostasis, the wall of icons. We could not see the action of the Mass, for the chancel was walled off from the congregation. We peered through a central open doorway to mysterious movement beyond. We could see and hear choirs high above on either side, not hidden by the iconostasis. The liturgy seemed to separate us from God, as though we were observers, tourists (which we were), visiting a hidden, private Holy One. It was more of a performance, and indeed, the music soared through the five gilded vaults, ethereal light glancing off the mosaic-tiled walls like fluttering angel wings.
There are as many ways of worship, I suppose, as there are believers, another wonder-full miraculous mystery. And so we gather together with those of similar aesthetic sense and, in some cases, similar theology. We gather to sing praises and partake of the body and blood of the Crucified One, today resurrected and ascended, each one accepting the invitation to the wedding feast, wearing our best garments, honoring Host and Creator. As members of the Church, his body, we are also his bride, and this is our wedding feast too. We are glad to be invited and we are happy to sit anywhere at his table and glimpse any or all of his glory. And so the Body of Christ over all Earth and possibly beyond is made up of unique individuals, yet who are claim membership in the Family of God.
Individuals being part of a group is an American foundation. America was founded on Judeo-Christian assumptions, this anachronistic teetering between individuals and groups, between freedom and common rule. She is built upon Christian precepts. The question today is whether the precepts, this delicate and vital balance between tribe and member, tribe and nation, can effect a peaceful society without Judeo-Christian belief. Put another way, can freedom and common consent survive without assent to outside authority, i.e. in this case, the Judeo-Christian God? Can human dignity and the sanctity of human life be protected without belief in the Creator?
The answer is not known, but many fear that the answer is “no.” Still, we work through the maze of these months and years, watching and praying as we are told to do, holding fast to love, to freedom, to faith, and to family.
We are Christians. We live on the rim of Earth, the edge of Eternity, the horizon of the heart of God. Each second, minute, hour, day, is a mystifying gift, an invitation from Christ to the festival of life. In the mean-time, we the Church wait for Christ’s next great gift, the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Today we ascend from Earth to Heaven with Our Lord. Next Sunday the Holy Spirit descends from Heaven to Earth to seize our hearts and minds with his fire.
We have been given so much, such treasure, such bounty, such joy. Our cups overflow with goodness and mercy and we live in the House of the Lord forever, now and in Eternity, on Earth and in Heaven.