The time between Ascension and Pentecost can be a time of anticipation and anxiety, absence, a liminal space. For many of us in this year of pandemic it is indeed a season of anticipation and anxiety, absence, a liminal space to be both endured and also honored for its opportunities for spiritual growth and the transformation of our world.
In celebrating the Ascension of Jesus we acknowledge that the Easter season is drawing to its conclusion. First there is Ascension and then there is Pentecost. First there is the withdrawal of Jesus from the seen world and then there is the gifting of us ordinary ones with the Spirit. First there is the ending of the world as we know it and there is the possibility of a new creation.
It has both been a long time coming and too soon. We feel with the first disciples the loss of Jesus. Which one of us, having lost someone we love does not wish for one more day with him or her. And the disciples got their wish, day after day, for forty days. Jesus had died but was in their midst, and in a new and exciting way. Now he really leaves them, they see him go; they feel him depart from them. They are excited and apprehensive, they are hopeful about what will be next but mystified.
The text ( Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11.) suggests that the disciples are not so much sad as filled with much joy. Their first separation had been traumatic: they had failed Jesus in various ways, seen him arrested, and from a distance seen him tortured and killed and buried. Then they saw him resurrected and got to spend more time with him and to have their relationship with him restored and enlarged. This separation is filled with wonder, promise and glory. Their reaction is no longer that of fear but of hope and anticipation. In the time between Ascension and Pentecost the disciples are said to be always in the Temple blessing God.
We can almost feel their relief and anticipation. But I also feel the burden of knowing how this turns out. Yes they will be filled with the power of the Spirit and will become mighty preachers, missionaries, and healers. But many will also become persecuted and some will become martyrs. Their hope that the power promised by Jesus might be about the restoration of Israel to its former and promised glory is a misunderstanding. They had hoped Jesus in his human life might become a mighty leader and reclaim Israel’s rightful place as chosen people but saw him die at the hands of Israel’s religious and Rome’s powerful. Now they are still hoping that the resurrected Jesus will empower them to see to fruition the restoration of Israel. But we know that Jerusalem is about to be raised to the ground and the people scattered. I find this the unspoken undercurrent or shadow of Pentecost – that we still hope for the naive outcome, for a return to the past, for a new world that is recognisably like the old.
At this time of the church season I am always struck by the experience of absence - its gift and its demands. I feel the absence, again, of the risen one. To have the fears, pain and lostness of Holy Week so beautifully met and reassured as we do in the Easter season to only lose him again seems somehow truly emptying and yet necessary. Without the absence of the physical presence of Jesus there was not room for the giving of the spirit.
Some of us are better equipped for this experience than others but living with the uncertainty of the absence of the other is very hard for most of us. It is probably why so many begin another romance before the old failed loved is truly let go of and mourned; it is probably why most of us will not leave a job we have outgrown until the next one is secured; or why we fill the void of things we no longer believe with shiny new ideas before we have allowed the season of uncertainty and space to do its own work of renewal.
And yet absence, if we can bear it, can cleanse us, teach us, prepare us for fullness. Absence is both about mourning the loss of what and who has been before and it can also be about relief and rest and the necessary preparation for renewal and redirection. Absence can give us time and space to more fully understand what has been before. How many of us have experienced our relationship with someone who has died actually deepens and grows after they have gone because the process of absence gives us new insights and perspectives. Absence both narrows our world and our options but can also leave space for new imaginings and new opportunities might be considered only because there is space. Absence when honoured and protected can be gift.
And another way of understanding this time between the Ascension and Pentecost is that of liminal space which is both an ancient and a modern concept. (“Liminality in anthropology is the time of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete.” Wikipedia) This is a near perfect description of where the disciples are up to in their development and where many of us find ourselves. I pray our world honours this time of disorientation and does not rush back to where we were.
Once I sat on a rock at Lights Beach at the turn of tide. I watched the waves rushing forward and suck back, revealing and then obscuring in froth, again and again the same landscape of rock and sand. At last I noticed how many crabs there were – rushing about their scavenging in the miniature rocky pools and sea gardens and then being inundated by waves only to be free to forage again in a few moments. And then I noticed how many sea birds there were wading in inch deep water and very attentively foraging. How rich the pickings I thought in this liminal space between sea and land.
And how rich the liminal space in a heart, a soul, a mind that allows the flotsam and jetsam of dreams and peripheral glimpses, old ideas and new imaginings to be waded amongst, scavenged through. No premature order insisted upon, just the faith and courage and curiosity to allow what was, what might be, what could never be, to tumble and play, to approach and retire in a mysterious tide not controlled or even understood by us. In this interim time between autumn and winter in the southern hemisphere (or spring and summer in the north), Eastertide and the Ordinary Time of making real the Spirit of God in our world and lives, this in-the-middle of the pandemic time we find ourselves in, may we faithfully endure and be transformed into what we cannot yet imagine.
It would be my hope, my prayer for us all that as we begin to image life beyond pandemic that we allow ourselves as individuals, families, churches, communities and nations, to dream, to imagine, to hope and plan for a world more just, inclusive, simpler in our material demands and more courageous and imaginative in our policies. Let us not hurry back to where we were but identify the yearning and musings of the heart that has known hope and absence and glimpsed in this liminal space new possibilities.
May the wisdom of this in-between time guide us through our world’s in-between time. Come Lord Jesus the Christ, be our companion through this liminal space.