"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
mattress,/
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Hail the Day that Sees Him Rise!

One of the most memorable passages of the vesperal hymnody we sing in the Byzantine tradition remains for me the seventh stichera at the great vigil of the Ascension in which the Apostles greet the news of the Lord's return to His Father in what I can only regard as a deeply human and entirely understandable way: they want so desperately to hang on to their beloved friend whom they have had back from the dead for only forty days; they do not want him to go so soon. Thus they, and tonight we, shall sing: "Seeing your Ascension, O Giver of Life, the apostles mourned and wept: 'Master do not leave us your servants as orphans whom you have loved in your compassion.'"  One can also sense such poignancy in the icon of the feast and the outstretched arms of the disciples and Theotokos:

For all that, the Ascension has remained perhaps one of the most ignored of all the great feasts, especially recently in the West where the Latin Church has yanked the feast around, showing their basic inability to count and in the process destroying any notion of the sanctification of time or the importance of feasting amidst quotidian realities. (The situation in Italy is truly absurd: the Vatican City-State keeps the Ascension on its proper day, but step one foot into the city of Rome--or go further afield into the rest of country--and the Church in Italy has "transferred" it to the following Sunday.) The entire weight of Scripture and Tradition is clear: it was forty days after Pascha, not 43. Transferring the Ascension--or any of the other feasts--from their proper place has been a deplorably common practice since Vatican II. Such liturgical shenanigans have only condemned Ascensiontide* to still greater ignorance and misunderstanding.

Building off his earlier work, Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology, Douglas Farrow has just published  a welcome new book to help all Christians, East and West, understand this great mystery: Ascension Theology (T&T Clark, May 2011), 192pp.

About this book, the publisher tells us:

Ascension Theology places the doctrine of the ascension in the context of the biblical narrative of descent and ascent, in order to shed light on ‘the upward call of God in Christ Jesus’ and on the eucharistic community that hears and answers that call.  It is a book for the Church as well as the academy.

Ascension theology also offers a contemporary account of the Eucharist itself.  It addresses the relation of the heavenly session of Christ to the conflicting currents of the present age, and the transformation to the life of the world to come.  Specialist and non-specialist alike will find much to ponder in its traditional yet controversial claims. 
Preface. 1: The Upward Call. 2: Re-imaginings. 3: Raising the Stakes. 4: A Question of Identity. 5. Presence in Absence. 6. The Politics of the Eucharist. 7. Ascension and Atonement. Epilogue. A Summary of the Anaphoric Work of Christ. Prayers for Ascensiontide. Bibliography. List of Images. Index.
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* For those who love the English choral tradition, as I do, there is a splendid CD by the justly famous King's College Choir, Cambridge: Choral Evensong for Ascension Day.

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