Sunday, May 24, 2009

the lotus and the continual ascension

The goal of evolution may have been determined,––
it is, let us concede,
the return of the Infinite upon Itself
through the cycle of manifestation…
(Sri Aurobindo, “The Philosophy of the Upanishads”)

I was privy to a very interesting conversation the other day. Some people were speaking about Eastern philosophy and the image of the lotus flower came up. If you’ve ever seen a lotus pool you know that the lotus is a very beautiful, delicate flower that seems to just float on the top of the water. But of course all we see is the delicate beautiful flower: we don’t see its roots, which are in the mud below the water. Because of this, in Hinduism the lotus comes to represent non-attachment because though it is rooted in the mud it floats on the water without becoming wet. And thus should we live in the world, without attachments. In Buddhism too the lotus symbolizes being free from ignorance and attaining enlightenment. This person who was speaking perhaps took the metaphor too far when she said, “The lotus has nothing to do with the water or the mud.” I thought to myself that that of course was kind of absurd, but it caused me to take the symbol to its logical extreme, and suddenly the lotus became for me a symbol for the exact opposite. How could a flower have nothing to do with the mud where its roots are? Who could possibly trace where the thinnest microscopic tentacle of the root ends and the mud begins? How could you possibly say that the lotus flower has nothing to do with the water in which it floats, the water that courses through its veins, saturates it and sustains its delicate beauty? Just because we can’t see the mud or feel the water doesn’t make them any less real. And not only that, but somehow the mud and the water too are brought to their fullest glory by the petals of the lotus flower opening to the sun in all its simple majesty.

My favorite image for the feast of the Ascension comes from a French liturgist named Jean Corbon when he speaks about the “continual ascension.” I must have used this phrase hundreds of times so far. What does this mean? Well, it simply means that we should not think of the Ascension as just one static moment in history. If we take St. Paul’s image of the Body of Christ literally––the church is the fullness of him who fills everything––then Jesus is the head of this body, and his fullness is in the church, in humanity and all creation. I have a quite literal image in my mind of this. Humanity is in a very real sense one body. The head of the body––Jesus––is there, but for all of history that head––Jesus––will be dragging, sometimes kicking and screaming, the rest of the body behind him, to follow him, to be with him, at the right hand of the throne of God in glory. Us, his body! We are the work of this continual ascension, and with us all of creation that is groaning and in agony while we await the redemption of our bodies, because our high priest Jesus is there, drawing us to himself.

I also have the image of the tides and the moon in mind: it’s like the same water that was in Jesus is in us, that is, the waters of baptism which is none other than the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. And like the moon draws the waters of the tides to itself, even more so we are being drawn to Jesus, drawn to God through with and in Jesus, drawn to glory, even in our very flesh.

I have still another image in my mind: the Body of Christ is like a lotus, with its roots in the mud––all of creation––, extending through the waters of the pond––all of humanity––with its face drinking in the glory of the sun––Jesus, the head of the body experiencing what we call the beatific vision, which is not, by the way, us gazing at Jesus, but us with Jesus gazing at the glory of God.

I have one more image in mind that could serve as the other bookend of this story. At the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus plunged into the River Jordan, and in doing so, we say, he made all the waters of the world holy. But this is really a symbol of the Divine inserting itself into creation and history and the messiness of humanity. In other words, Jesus plunged into the mud of our lotus pool. And his glory is not just the glory of the lotus flower, it is the glory of the mud and the water, the stem and the roots too.

This is Christian mystical theology at its most sublime.

Lucien Deiss calls the Ascension “the triumph of humanity in Jesus,” not just the triumph of Jesus’ humanity, but the triumph of humanity in general, and with it flesh and all creation. If we really believe that Jesus was truly human as well as truly divine, then in Jesus our very humanity (and with it all flesh and all creation) is brought to the throne of God, to the right hand of the Father. The prayers in our tradition are replete with this notion today, saying that the ascension is our hope of glory, and that in Christ, “human nature is already near to you.” Human nature itself has been brought to the right hand of the throne of God. Henceforth there is no gap to be bridged between the Divine and the human, between the Creator and Creation. We only need to realize the union achieved for us by the Christ event.

Jesus became a human being so that we might become children of God. Actually St. Augustine uses even stronger language: “God became a human being so that the human being might become God.” If it is true that Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, if it is true that he went so as to prepare a place for us, if it is true that Jesus wants to share with us the glory that the Father gave him, then the Ascension is a dynamic event, the ascension of Jesus is the first movement of a progressive event, as Paul says in those incredible words (Eph 4:13) until all of us come to maturity, until all of us come to the measure of the full stature of Christ. This movement of the ascension will only be complete when all the members of the Body of Christ and all of creation––“world without end, Amen!”––have been drawn to the Father.

Our non-attachment, our non-clinging to things of this world, and ambition and riches and comforts, is like the lotus flower that floats above the pool of water. But that doesn’t work if we apply it to the Divine, to God. The heart of Judeo-Christianity spirituality, what we add to Greek thought and other spiritualities, is that God is attached to the mud by the roots. And ever since Jesus jumped into our lotus pool, the mud and the water and our humanity and this whole world that God loves so much, is holy too, and brought into communion with God through, with and in Christ who is the first movement in our continual ascension.