Today is Ascension Day.
Yup! Another church calendar high holy day that passes mostly unnoticed, save for an icon or Celtic art posted on my Facebook feed.
My dad was the organist and choirmaster at the Church of the Ascension in Oakland, (that’s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). Twenty-six years on the corner of Ellsworth and Neville. I can recite the phone number out loud to this day. My formative years.
He began his work there when I started into the 3rdgrade. Who knew the inklings of liturgical delight begun in that place would blow wide open and run amuck and land me in the Episcopal priesthood by the time I was 35?!
The pic is of my dad on the bench at Ascension, somewhere round about the early-mid 70's.
A city church.
Gothic style, stacked stone blackened with historical fiction. Soot from the steel mills, for a city beautiful with the residue of a livelihood. Lovely and more ancient with its rugged face than its mere 130 years belies.
A gothic beaut! The Church of the Ascension.
Somewhere along the way, artisans decided it was time to clean and restore the gargantuan mural above the High Altar, painted for its namesake: The Ascension.
So up went the scaffolding and cramped the worship experience for so long you hardly noticed it anymore and wondered at all the fuss, for a silly old mural of Jesus floating upwards in the clouds. Yes, Jesus leaving. Who want’s that in front of your face all the time, anyways?
I had no idea. I had grown up with the clouds clouded over from smoking stacks.
I had no idea. I was transfixed. Breathless. Overcome, by beauty. Revealed. When the scaffolding came down.
How could it be that paint carries the light? And that a painter could bring it, and mow me down with Glory?
More years later, many years later, after I was long gone and would rarely but occasionally return to smell the smells and hear the creaks of a life I loved there, I heard the rumor. They built an addition.
I didn’t want to see it. I wanted my church to be just like it always was. But I went. And I slipped out of the service to use the restroom and saw the ramp that goes down into the new wing, just a wretched glimpse of chrome and glass from the top of the ramp, shuddering to think that now they’ve gone and done it, they’ve ruined it! Modernized what was already perfect.
I took a few steps in just to be brave.
To see the truth and reality of this defamation.
To grow up, and let go, and leave behind my soulful attachment to this place.
To look and see what wicked fiction they’ve made up, about ‘who do they think they are?’
And much to my surprise, who’s brilliant idea was this?!
The ramp was flanked by a glass wall the full distance of the room, so that the view looked out onto none other than the old blackened exterior of the church itself, the stone with a story of life making and a lifetime of storytelling. They’ve kept it!
The glass keeping the vision of who they were and are still, in order to become who they will be. Brilliant move and brave!
Allowing themselves to be shaped by the unknown.
To be shaped by a view of rugged beauty that holds our DNA ~ our DNA ~ our Lindberg family, my father’s life, his music, my falling in love with the church. My story is part of their story though they don’t know it, because no, they don’t know me, anymore. But I am in it, with them. In their church, in their story, and they in mine. They can feel their story and live it, still, because they can see it. And touch it. And hear it. The stone stories. And they can stand with it. In it. In its exquisite landscape. Still. All the beautiful fiction and non-fiction with which we make the holy story our own story.
That’s how we say ‘Steel’ in Pittsburgh. Still Mill. I just love oxymorons.
My bishop died this week. Another father-esque kind of image. The one who blessed me, with hands pressing down, and oil on my forehead, twice.
What to do with these images? These people who hold truth, and make fiction, to help us tell the stories of our lives.
Jesus, present, then absent, then present again, in just that same way. Holding truth, blessing me, making up stories to be fanciful with me. Fiction. Non-fiction. Still, all made-up stories.
Sorting them is exhausting and much money spent in therapy.
My father, my bishop, my Jesus. These.
I simply want to take in the light. That’s the gift of The Ascension.
Beauty infused with light equals Glory.
That mural above the high altar, transfixed and breathless before its resplendent light.
The glass wall through which to see and see more and more and feel the heartbeat of those that love you, even if only in the old stone, stacked.
The communion of saints.
The forgiveness of sins.
The life everlasting.
For the love of it,
It was the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Hispanic congregation was due to have an overflow crowd for their 4:00 service and again at 7:30.
They were preparing a beautiful light filled shrine for the statue of The Virgin and I wandered in to behold the wonder, when I realized that our 20 lovely Advent three-inch-candle-light-pillar-votives-in-their-sconces had melted and dripped from 7’ up during church that morning to create amazing mounds of wax on the floor, the splatter effect of which looked like someone had spilled uncooked grits everywhere!
We’ve been praying the light.
Prayer on the hoof and on the ladder and the stepstool, in the store and on the phone, and on our knees
with scrapers in hand. . . we pray the light, play with the light, worship the light. And love it.
With the wax cleaned up, it was back to the drawing board this week for the devoted altar guild enthusiasts, for a second round of scouring the town for just the right candles. Trips to the wholesale florist and various shops, and the test drive of new candles with glass sleeves. Nope: too big, too formal, too hard to light, too hard to snuff out, a hunt on-line and out again to Michael’s for small votives pre-poured in glass cups, very inexpensive, very lovely, very light giving, very easy to light and snuff, and NO DRIPS!
I’ve always felt a kindred spirit with church “Guilds” (Altar guild, flower guild, linen guild. . .any and all of the Guilds). I adore their passion for beauty, their desire for the Holy, their instinctive sense of awe, and the want to create holy space and holy experience for others, and but of course, their attention to detail!
My penchant for all these things means I tend to rope guilds into shenanigans. Always have. Always will. Even if it means Advent candlelight that creates a big fat mess! Because, oooh, isn’t it beautiful!
Suffice it to say, I am always gloriously beholden to the silent, behind the scenes, hard work of liturgists who do their unsung work as ‘guilds’, so that the rest of us can lift our voices in corporate praise and get caught up in the rapture of worship.
In this season of sitting in darkness,
waiting and watching for Messiah to be born to us,
In this season of nuanced flickering flame, holy shadow dance and increasing light,
In this season of trimming wicks and tending the fire,
Remember this important thing that Jesus said:
“You. . . are the light of the world.”
Mindful of light,
and ever vigilant,
Reverend Ruth Pattison
Rev. Pattison serves the people of Highpoint Episcopal Community Church as the Parson, exercising her gifts for collaborative leadership through preaching, liturgy, and the pastoral arts.