For a full transcript, please see below.
Opening Words for the Sunday after Ascension Day
God is gone up with a shout! The Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
Verses from Psalm 68 (7-10, 33-36)
God, when you went forth before your people, *
when you marched through the wilderness,
earth shook, and the skies poured down rain,
at the presence of God, the God of Sinai, *
at the presence of God, the God of Israel.
sent a gracious rain, O God, upon your inheritance; *
you refreshed the land when it was weary.
people found their home in it; *
in your goodness, O God, you have made provision for the poor.
to God, O kingdoms of the earth; *
sing praises to the Lord.
rides in the heavens, the ancient heavens; *
he sends forth his voice, his mighty voice.
power to God; *
his majesty is over Israel;
his strength is in the skies.
wonderful is God in his holy places! *
the God of Israel giving strength and power to his people!
Blessed be God!
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.
Words from today’s Epistle, the First Letter of Peter, from chapters 4 and 5
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ's sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.
Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you. Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.
I will never be able to hear the opening words of that passage from the first Letter of Peter without thinking of a tiny medieval chapel called Bartlemas, on a summer evening, over twenty years ago. The chapel was built in the early thirteen-hundreds as part of a leper hospital, a mile outside the Oxford city wall. Which goes to show, social distancing, for medical reasons, has been around for a while.
On that summer evening I had taken some students to Bartlemas for a time of prayer – using music from the French community at Taizé. The light was low, and we filled the shadowy space with candles. Many of them were tea lights, those little flat discs that you can perch almost anyplace. Someone thought it would be nice to line up some tea lights along the top of the lectern, a little reading-stand like the one in this picture, and it looked beautiful.
One of the students stood up to read at the lectern, it was warmly glowing with lit candles across the top. While she was announcing the reading, light leapt up. The sheet from which she was about to read had caught fire. There was a quick reaction, gentle stomping on the ancient stone floor, and the little blaze was put out. Only the top of the sheet had burned, the words of the reading itself were still intact.
Amid the smell of burned paper, the reader collected herself and began – before stopping to laugh, and say “You’re not going to believe this.” Then came the reading. “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you ....”
The First Letter of Peter was written in a time of persecution, for early Christians in Asia Minor. They were suffering, and the letter tells them they are sharing the sufferings of Christ. Which is something to rejoice about. That may seem strange to us – why rejoice in suffering? We might think of sharing Christ’s sufferings only as something negative. The early Church knew better. The Resurrection was fresh in their shared memory. They saw the sufferings of Christ as part of a larger pattern. Sharing his sufferings meant also sharing what came next: his victory.
Christ goes into the depths, to rise again. That’s the dynamic, that is the pattern for us too, as his people. We too will rise again. And shout for joy.
What a reading it is for our times. We are not suffering for our faith, thank God; but during this pandemic we are going through a period of suffering. For some it is worse than for others. This ordeal runs the gamut from sadness at not being with friends and family, to being deprived by this virus of normal rituals of bereavement when someone has died. From worry about our finances for many, to real loss of employment for some. From restlessness, cabin-fever, to emotional and psychological problems, magnified by isolation and uncertainty.
Today’s reading from First Peter is exactly what we need to hear. Because it meets us where we are. It points the way forward, reminding us of the big picture. That in due time, this ordeal will end; we’ll be lifted up from these strange depths. And the reading reminds us that God is for us in all this. We can bring our burdens to him. It is a beautiful, reassuring call to prayer. “Cast all your anxieties on him,” it says, “for he cares about you.”
The reading also reminds us, we are contending with an adversary. At the moment I am not talking about the virus itself as the adversary; I mean dejection, despair. The reading frames our enemy as a ravenous lion; that’s dramatic but not an overstatement because the forces that would drag us down are powerful: So, “Be sober, be watchful” it says; “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.” Not being devoured means resisting despair, holding to our faith.
This will include bringing our anxieties to God in prayer; and it includes allowing ourselves to be helped by God and the various means through which God works. For some it’ll be the support of family and friends; for others it’ll mean being in touch with a twelve-step program, by phone or electronically. For everyone it means looking after our mental well-being in a purposeful way. Showing ourselves a little loving care. With the aim of being as resilient and positive as we can be. Because that’s what the times are demanding. It doesn’t mean never feeling down or low. But it does mean resisting the adversary: fighting back, not letting him get the upper hand.
Today’s reading also helps us realize we have companions in this ordeal all over the world. Though physically apart, we are not alone in what we are going through. The reading ends with assurance that the outcome we look for awaits us and it will be good. God will restore us, strengthen, settle us. Words to hold in our hearts not only because they describe the day when all this will be behind us; they also describe how God’s loving hand can help us as we persevere towards that day. Our job is to keep looking to God with trust, and keep putting one foot in front of the other. Taking each new day as a gift, to make the best use of it we can.
“The God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever.”
God is for us. God will see us through.
Now we pray together in the words that Jesus taught us:
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy Name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those
who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
power, and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.
Lord, hear our prayer; and let our cry come to you.
We hold in our hearts those who are in special need at this time. By name, we remember: Anne, Carlos, Robyn, Mabel, Joan, Matthew, Donna, [Ann,] Regis, Bruce, Andrew, Diana, Gail, Patricia, Robert, Joanie, Craig, Jeff, Marie-Claire, Ruth, Sarah, Carol and John, Nancy, Elinor, Rose, Didimo, and Ralph.
O Lord our God, accept the fervent prayers of your people; in the multitude of your mercies, look with compassion upon us and all who turn to you for help; for you are gracious, O lover of souls, and to you we give glory, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.
Lord, help us to be stirred by the life of your Holy Spirit within us and teach us to pray. With simplicity and a true opening of our hearts; with expectation and hope; with loving concern for others. Through our times of prayer, shape us; enlighten and instruct us; fill us with trust in you; and equip us to serve you joyfully day by day; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Collect for the Sunday after Ascension Day
O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
A Memorial Day Prayer
O God, we ask your strength, that we might dedicate ourselves to persevere in working for your kingdom of peace and justice among nations. We give thanks for the many blessings of freedom which we possess, purchased at the cost of many lives and sacrifices. Fill us with courage to fulfill our tasks and in no way break faith with the fallen. We commend these fallen to your mercy: give them eternal rest. This we ask and pray in your name. Amen.
- Source: Washington National Cathedral (adapted)
Christ Risen, ascended, glorified, keep us in his peace, and pour upon us the riches of the Spirit; and may the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, rest upon us and remain with us, this day and forever. Amen.