Monday, May 22, 2017

Put the Candle Out?

Easter lasts for fifty days. It begins with the Day of Resurrection and lasts through (and including) Pentecost. That means two more Sundays of Easter. In several ways, whether the preacher mentions it or not, the congregation is clued in on this fact as we continue to begin the liturgy with "Alleluia. Christ is risen" and (except when there is a baptism on Pentecost) sing the Gloria. In our parish, we will continue to use an Easter-themed fraction anthem (the singing of "God's Paschal lamb is sacrificed for us...") and keep the same Communion hymns as a sign of continuity. But there's one liturgical detail that, depending on your parish, may show a sign of discontinuity with the rest of the Easter season.

In some parishes, the Paschal Candle is extinguished at the Ascension Day liturgy as a symbol of Christ's physical, bodily presence leaving earth and ascending into heaven. Other parishes leave it burning. The rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer suggest that "it is customary that the Paschal Candle burn at all services from Easter Day through the Day of Pentecost" (p. 287), but, as this seemingly authoritative response on a Roman Catholic website states, in the Catholic tradition the Candle is extinguished after the reading of the Gospel at mass on Ascension Day since "it symbolizes the presence of the glorified risen Christ" (though it is left unlit in the church through Pentecost). I have heard of parishes doing both. Ours keeps it burning, and, although I don't have strong feelings about which way is right, I do appreciate how extinguishing the candle helps the congregation sense that something different is happening between Ascension Day and Pentecost.

This Thursday will be the fortieth day of Easter. As a parish, we will celebration Ascension Day with a Eucharist that ends with the release of some biodegradable balloons with words of hope attached to them. Then, when we gather in church this Sunday, something will be different. Like the first Thanksgiving after the matriarch of a family dies, at this Sunday's Eucharistic feast, someone will be missing. Well, Jesus will be with us in the same way that he was with us every Sunday for the last two thousand years, but, liturgically speaking, this is the Sunday in between the departure of Jesus and the arrival of the Holy Spirit. It's an odd time theologically speaking, and it's appropriate for things to feel a little weird.

There are other ways to capture that "where did he go?" feeling. The proper preface doesn't do a very good job. It focuses on the doctrine of the ascension--how Jesus went to prepare a place for us (BCP p. 379). The gospel lesson get us closer as it conveys Jesus' words of promise that he will come again to them and prayer that the Father would care for them in his absence (John 17:1-11). Maybe the cover of our bulletin could have an image of Jesus' feet barely sticking out from the bottom of some clouds like so many paintings of the ascension represent.

We could extinguish the Paschal Candle, but I think we'll keep it burning. I'm not preaching, but I suspect the sermon will convey at least a sense of this stuck in between. It might be a theologically odd time, but this liminal place is where I spend most of my life. It's what the name of this blog attempts to convey. Yes, we have the Holy Spirit. Yes, we live in the post-Pentecost era. But, like the disciples in Acts 1, we often find ourselves looking up into heaven, wondering when he's going to come back. Still, there's work to do. As the men in white robes (could they be coats?) say to the disciples, we can't get stuck in that place of waiting. We must keep going. But we need to name that instinctive cloud-gazing as part of the human response. There's a lot of complex emotion in this Sunday. I hope in one way or another that our worship gives our congregation the chance to experience some of it.

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