Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC
Seventh Sunday of Easter– Sunday May 28, 2017
“Ascensiontide is the most liminal time of the church year. Here you learn the skill of loving God and uniting in community at a time of ambiguity and uncertainty and waiting.”So says our Associate and dear friend Suzanne Guthrie on her blog site, At the Edge of the Enclosure
“Ascensiontide is the most liminal time of the church year.”
And it does seem as if, on so many levels, we are liminal, which is to say, dwelling on the threshold, living in the in between.
I've come to believe that this is always the case for us, since we mortals all live between birth and death and (we hope) new birth, resurrection, new life. Every single one of us. But within this great in-between, there are other, more focused periods of waiting, of uncertainty, of unknowing. And these days between the Ascension of our Lord that we celebrated this past Thursday and the anticipation of Pentecost next Sunday with its pledge and promise of Holy Spirit fire and transformation perfectly express that universal spiritual and deeply human experience of waiting, with all its attendant ambiguity and incertitude and hope.
On Thursday we heard the Gospel of St. Luke describe the Ascension of our Lord. He concluded with these words: “And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”(Luke 24:53) It all sounds so triumphant, so settled, so reassuring, doesn't it?
But today we hear another version of the story from the Book of Acts, a passage which overlaps with what we heard on Thursday. The Book of Acts is commonly assumed by both faithful and scholars alike to be written by Luke, the author of the Gospel that bears his name. But now he is writing a few years later. And I'm struck by the rather different picture he offers of what happens after our Lord was drawn from the sight and physical presence of his friends and family and followers. Luke says here, “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the Mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day's journey away. When they entered the city, they (the Apostles) went to the room upstairs where they were staying. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.”
To my ears at least, this sounds a lot less triumphant and certain and reassuring than the Gospel description, and much more tentative, uncertain and...well, liminal, which is to say, in between, here and not yet, known and unknown, yes and no...kind of like life, your life and mine. The thing is, these early friends and followers of Jesus knew the Lord and his promises, but they did not know quite what to expect or when to expect it. So what do they do? They hang out together day after day in what sounds like the same, safe upper room where Jesus celebrated his final dinner with his friends, until one day it explodes on them that they and the world have been set on fire: Fire for compassion. Fire for peace. Fire for love. Fire for holiness of life. Fire for conversion and evangelization and a whole New Life in a world turned upside down.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has for the past two years invited people to join with him and tens of thousands of Christians in prayer during these nine days between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday, the first and model novena. He says, “These nine days are a dedicated time to prayerfully wait in the 'in between' time from Ascension to Pentecost.”
He adds: “In it we choose to align ourselves with the love of God, so that those around us may come to know more of Him. May our waiting and our praying make us more open to receiving the Holy Spirit and more capable of showing the grace of God in all that we are and do.”
The suggested themes vary each day:
Between Seeking and Finding
Between Bystander and Game-Changer
Between Chaos and Courage
Between Sunset and Sunrise
Between Despair and Thanksgiving
But they underscore the deeper truth that all of us stand in between and on the threshold: between dream and reality, between the test and the results, between jobs or boyfriends/girlfriends; between sickness and health, youth and old age; between fidelity and betrayal; between faith and faithlessness. It's where we live. It's where God lives.
As many of you know, in two weeks we will have a new Superior in our Order, and my title and my job and role will change. And so I find myself in between, a classic lame duck, having precious little time to accomplish anything new. And, as is often the case with men or women who retire from one job or role, I find myself rather uncertain of what exactly I will do and, even scarier, who exactly I will be. I think that just goes with the turf.
And yet I am also finding a joy and consolation in this unknowing and uncertainty. I seem to be developing hints of a perspective that sees the bigger picture, realizing that one can only do so much. It is in truth in God's hands—it always has been—though I shall continue to do what I can. Being in between, even in the most difficult and anguishing situations, forces us to see that, try as we might—and we must try—we are not God. God alone is God! And God's presence is always there, bidden or unbidden, perceived or not, working in us and through us and around us in what sometimes seem like impossible situations.
Situations perhaps like that of the Apostles who had their friend and master and Lord taken from their sight. Like feeling abandoned. Like feeling like an orphan. Like feeling lost.
I will not leave you orphaned, Jesus promises. I will not leave you comfortless. Wait. Wait. I'm not finished with you yet. You will receive power, dynamis, from on high. And you will be my witnesses.
Meanwhile, as we wait, we would do well to heed the advice the First Letter of Peter offers: “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves. Keep alert.”
Alert, non-anxious disciples. Not a bad job description, not bad advice for this in between time. Or for any time.