Friday, 26 May 2017

Ascension 2017

Acts 1:3 reads that “He had shown Himself alive to them after His Passion by many demonstrations: for forty days He had continued to appear to them and tell them about the Kingdom of God”. Today is exactly the 40th day. But, in many parts of the world, this is just an ordinary day as the event we commemorate today has been transferred to this coming Sunday.

If symbolism is that central to Catholicism’s sacramental system, a question to ask is why the ease of transference? Is it simply a case of convenience—to facilitate the completion of two obligations with one celebration? Or will we lose something when Ascension is switched to a Sunday?[1]

It might be good to explore what loss we suffer, if any, were we to make a change.

The word bog is evocative as the vision of Jim Henson's Bog of Eternal Stench will conjure. The British use the word to designate their loo. However, its Gaelic or Irish origin is gentler as it refers to the softness or the moist of the peatland. What is interesting is that a particular usage of the word has a rather burdensome connotation such as “being bogged down by work or worries”. Nobody in the right frame of mind likes to be bogged down. In fact, we all yearn to be light and elated or better still, we prefer to be elevated and exalted. Since we are close to the feast of the Spirit, the idea of being “up there” somehow ennobles the spirit.

Now, whether heaven is “up” there or not, the verbs to ascend, to rise and to go up are motions imbued with empyrean or celestial aspiration. Otherwise, why get “high” on drugs or adrenalin rushes? The human spirit has a sublime affinity for soaring because we are created that way. Even Eros, according Benedict XVI, when purified will regain its original dignity—a dignity which conceals a supernatural hunger that the Lord has placed in man when he was created.

However, the purification that Eros requires is not purely a matter of disciplining. Beating the body up is no way to get it to fall into line. Asceticism without inspiration is nothing but cruelty because the human spirit will only soar when it is inspired.[2]

The inspiration is reflected in the preface for the Eucharist in which we hear that He ascended, not to distance Himself from our lowly state but that we, His members, might be confident of following where He, our Head and Founder, has gone before. It is this captivating attraction that drew the most perfect disciple of the Master, body and soul, to heaven as rendered by the preface for the Assumption, (t)he Virgin Mother of God was assumed into heaven as the beginning and image of your Church’s coming to perfection and a sign of sure hope and comfort to your pilgrim people.

The human spirit is enlivened through inspiration. Every four years, the Olympic Games served to encourage man in the quest for "Citius, Altius, Fortius". But, somehow, to be faster, higher and stronger only expresses what is humanly achievable. It is good but is it enough to satisfy the human spirit? The inspiration that ennobles the human spirit is more than achievement. It is conveyed through "art".

The objective of art is to mirror beauty. But, art appears to have lost sight of its purpose. According to Christian tradition, beauty has an ontological significance because its function is to reveal a thing for what it truly is. Here "is" is not just anything that can be thought of but rather "is" is a reflexion of what the Creator has endowed creation to be. Thus, beauty embodies proportion and unity and art's role is to allow these proportion and unity to shine through. In other words, art imitates the perfection of heaven. Sadly, according to Leo Tolstoy: art, in our society, has been so perverted that not only has bad art come to be considered good, but even the very perception of what art really is, has been lost.

Now, if heaven is that beautiful, how come so few are interested in it? In fact, if at all, today we strive so much to prolong this temporary life. The answer may lie in the severed link between art and beauty. Art does not know what its goal is. What do I mean by that? In many of our artistic renditions of heaven, the beauty of heaven is parodied through the inane or asinine. Take for example: Bruce Almighty. This is not an inspiring take on heaven, is it? In fact, it makes fun of heaven.

On a more serious note, consider the example of the British artist Chris Ofili. His mixed-media portrayal of the Madonna is decorated with varnished elephant dung whereas the angels surrounding her are made from cut pictures of female genitalia.[3] In this rendition of Our Lady, what is considered "art" has been severed from beauty so much so that anything today that is considered as art should also be removed from any moral consideration. After all, who are we to judge? It boils down to perspective.

When art loses its goal, that is, to ennoble the spirit, it will become a slave of celebrity-hood and as a consequence, it functions no more than a marketing strategy. The idea of art as celebrity-hood frequently reduces it to some "shocking" expressions. In fact, in order to qualify as art, it has to be so revolting that it becomes attractive. Have you eaten ramen out of a toilet bowl or would you eat bread shaped like a pile of faeces?

How are we supposed to go heaven when we are snagged by the ugly rather than drawn up by the sublime? Art ennobles and helps the human spirit soar and it is able to do that because of its association with beauty.

We have loss a taste for heaven because we are no longer at home with beauty.[4] The transference of such an important feast to a Sunday might be a matter of convenience[5] but perhaps it is also emblematic of the loss of inspiration for art is nothing but what you can get away with. That is Andy Warhol.

[1] Epiphany is no longer the 6th of January. Corpus Christi is no longer the Thursday after Trinity Sunday…
[2] The etymology of the word “inspire” is itself derived from word “spirit”. However, the use of the word “inspire” suggests a state of being caught up or to be captivated by. So, discipline alone is never enough. Suicide bombing, though regarded as evil by many, is for perpetrators, not so much evil as it is inspiring. They do it because the notion of sacrificing for a cause is more captivating than the calculated cost of carnage. Indoctrination works only because it has perverted a vision which inspires.
[3] Indeed, it was a dung deal for it was sold in June 2015 by Christie’s at a handsome price of £2.9m.
[4] The appreciation of beauty requires time and waiting. But, we live in a world with an insatiable need for instant gratification. It is a world that sees no value in vigils or novenas because these take time. We rush to create instant utopia which is but a poor substitute for heaven. For example, tea drinking. When elevated to an art form it takes on a ritual which prolongs the experience of contemplation. But, we have reduced it to a tea-bag. This drive for instant fulfilment, when translated into spirituality, is observed through our rushed prayers. Priest habitually use the Eucharistic Prayer II because it is the shortest. Parishioners will cheer a priest whose homily is short because minutes are shaved off the length of the Mass.
[5] Not quite a few of our church architecture embodies the philosophy of functionality. They are structures of convenience rather than sanctuaries of beauty—spaces that captivate and send our spirits soaring into heaven.