Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Ascension of Jesus Christ, 1

According to the calendar used by most Christians, Thursday, May 1st will be the fortieth day following Easter. Acts 1:3 says that, after his suffering, Jesus appeared to the apostles giving many convincing proofs and speaking about the kingdom of God over a period of forty days. So this year, May 1st is "Ascension Day." (In some churches, the Ascension is celebrated on the Sunday following the fortieth day, which falls on May 4th of this year).

As we get closer to that day, I plan to post a few things about the ascension of the Lord Jesus. But today, a few personal reflections about holy days and the Christian calendar.

I didn't grow up hearing about or observing anything like Ascension Day. And that's the case for most everyone who, like me, has life-long connections to the Churches of Christ. In the church culture of my youth, if someone had referred to Ascension Day it would have been only to remark, "Scripture nowhere tells us that we should observe a religious holiday by that name. It's not scriptural." End of discussion.

And you can bet I got the message. I can still remember that during a months-long stint of fill-in preaching, at age 19, I was quite proud that on Easter Sunday I had spoken about "Noah, a Preacher of Righteousness."

But coming into my adult years, I began to look at some of these things differently. I came to think that such radical rejection of the huge majority of the Christian world had set us up for all sorts of alienation and inconsistency and just plain old weirdness. Maybe you've noticed that in some churches, having a Halloween party, mimicking the demonic, and scaring the wits out of children counts as "fellowship," while celebrating with Scripture the birth of Jesus is for some reason to be strictly avoided. That's begun to reverse itself over the last few years. But in recent memory what I've described is the way it was.

Now, people who know me know that I love and treasure my religious heritage, the legacy that is mine among the Churches of Christ. I'm blessed to be a washed-in-the-blood Christian. And I'm happy to be a dyed-in-the-wool "Campbellite." My group has so many great and godly people. And I love them. But that doesn't mean that I never get a little jealous of Christian groups who live and worship down the street from me. (How many white preachers have dreamed of preaching to a black church?) And I'll admit it. I have sometimes peeked into their backyards.

I first discovered a bit of the Christian calendar during the years I was attending an ecumenical divinity school. I was introduced back then to the common lectionary (an organized list of weekly Scripture readings), which I began to use in my preaching, mainly to keep it more balanced, and to have a ready-made plan that included options. One of the first things I realized was that, even if the adults in the Churches of Christ were opposed to the Christian calendar, their children were secretly "observing" it. Take a look at the Bible school curriculum used for the children in your church. What you'll likely see is that it follows the common lectionary, which is more less linked to the Christian calendar (especially Christmas and Easter).

This was ironic to me. I mean, it's not a stretch to say that in some congregations of the Churches of Christ, the song leader might be considered "too liberal" if he leads "Joy to the World" or "Away in the Manger" within a few weeks of Christmas. June, being six months separated, is the safest time. However, over in the educational wing of many of those same congregations, on the Sunday before Christmas the text for the children's class will be one of the infancy narratives. (Although many members of Churches of Christ might be loath to admit it, my theory is that the curriculum and hymnody that we've mostly borrowed from older, bigger Protestant groups has done a lot to keep our theology in line).

When I was first discovering the lectionary and the calendar, I secretly regretted that they had been excluded from the faith of my fathers. And, although I still have little experience with the calendar, I just suspect that there's something about the spiritual and religious rhythm of its annual cycle that, in its own peculiar way, moors the faith of those who follow it. I can still remember how I envied Dietrich Bonhoeffer on his way to the gallows. Imprisoned, with hardly any connection to the outside, he was able to maintain a sense of holy time by marking the Christian dates he knew so well. How appropriate.

In one of my favorite hymns, "Father of Mercies," we sing to God: "The rolling seasons, as they move, proclaim to all Thy constant care." Might that be true of a Christian calendar as well as the natural cycle? I know, something like the calendar shouldn't be forced on a congregation that doesn't know or want it. But on the other hand, Romans 14 also leaves it open to the individual to observe special days if he wants. The only requirement is, "Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind" (v. 5). This time of year, I want to focus on the Ascension of Jesus Christ.

Thoughts? Observations? Questions?

7 comments:

jimgrey said...

When I obeyed the Gospel ten years ago I was glad to do so in a Church of Christ devoid of Christianity's trappings, such as endless observances of special dates. I had watched those trappings while attending a Methodist church a few years before and decided that such observances could not be the stuff of genuine faith; it was the stuff of going through the motions.

When it was time for me to leave the Church of Christ several years later I was drawn to an independent Christian church of the Restoration Movement where Christmas and Easter are observed. It's been a struggle to learn that observing these dates can keep me in touch with events that made my faith possible.

While I don't see myself observing Ascension Day anytime soon, I can now see how a mature Christian can make use of such an observance to maintain his closeness to God. What I can't see (yet?) is how a babe in Christ can see past such observances and see Christ and come to know His love personally.

Boy, does this comment ever reveal something about the state of my growth.

Dee Andrews said...

Thanks for this good post, Frank. I look forward to hearing more and sharing with you the ascension of Jesus Christ.

Good observations and conclusions. I agree.

Dee

Frank Bellizzi said...

Jim, thanks for revealing something of your past and your point of view.

Years ago when I was preaching in a Church of Christ in Connecticut, several of our members were former Roman Catholics. When I, feeling a lot of freedom to lead worship in various ways, introduced responsive readings, I thought it was great. But I soon found out that our former Roman Catholics wanted to know if I was training for the priesthood!

Is a form a familiar something you seem trapped in, or is it an unknown that seems like it could be meaningful to you? Clearly, the same form can be either.

I respect and also value your commitment to what is at the core of our faith, as opposed to what has grown up beside our faith.

Dee, thanks so much for your kind comments. I trust you're doing well, or at least better, these days.

Carisse said...

Frank, I've thought of you Amarillo folks the last few days, with weather in the area.

I appreciated your reflections on the calendar. I've had several friends who have found the lectionary helpful for balance in preaching.

Looking forward to your series on the Ascension. It is almost as much a mystery as the Resurrection.

Arlene Kasselman said...

Yes, Frank I love these thoughts. Mine is a Jewish heritage and so repetition and celebration seem so integral to the process of spiritual formation. Scripture is full of the idea of re-enactment for the sake of faith development.
Lauren Winner has a little book, Muddhouse Sabbath. She makes note in her section about reciting written prayers that one value of such things is that when our souls and hearts are so down trodden and we can not prayer from within, we can recite the rich words of the past and still feel connected to God. Oh, I love that. In times of deepest grief when I have not been able to pray, the words of another can be issued from my mouth.
And so to, the church calendar. I love that there is rhythm there. I do not want to feel restricted by having to follow the church calendar all year, but I love the freedom to celebrate along the way.

Royce Ogle said...

Frank,

Long ago I was invited to speak at a Saturday morning Brotherhood Meeting at a black church in Canton, N.C. I have seldom enjoyed speaking as much! Those frequent exclamation points from the audience was wonderful. And, one of my former employees is pastor of a black church in Irving, Texas and I plan to worship with them the next time I am in the area. You can bet I'm just itchin' to preach for him! lol

Isn't it odd that anyone who is a Christ follower would object to any public reading of Holy Scripture? And isn't it odd that any devotee of Jesus would refuse to observe any special event or day in His life?

We have some strange birds in our forever family don't we?

His Peace,
Royce Ogle

Frank Bellizzi said...

Carisse,

We did have a good chance for rain on Wednesday, but we didn't get much moisture. We didn't experience any severe weather here either. We really could use some rain here.

Arlene,

I didn't know about your Jewish origins. Wow, we sure don't have too many people like you in Amarillo. You raise our diversity quotient several points all by yourself. Thanks for the book recommendation; I agree with Winner that sometimes you need to have a prayer when you don't have your own words. Good stuff.

Royce,

I hope you get to speak at Irving sometime. What a delight. The spirit of celebration in the black church is so warm, so encouraging. I have always been treated so well. And, yes, ours is sometimes a fluky flock.