Jesus prayed to God: The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one…
The way the Christian Church keeps time is through days, seasons, and celebrations that respond to the life of Jesus and his followers. We in the church realize it’s the twelfth of May, and that today is Mother’s Day. These are other ways, and other important celebrations with which we keep time. It just so happens that for Christians, the story of God that we read through the life of Jesus is how we understand all times and celebrations. Today, for instance, is the seventh Sunday of Easter. Notice we say “of Easter” not “after Easter.” The resurrection for Christians is not a religious event tied to one day, but a cosmic event celebrated by an entire season. The conquering of sin and death in the body of Jesus is too momentous for just a passing alleluia. So, we take a good many weeks—actually, 50 days—to try and speak the truth of our world in light of God’s gracious actions in raising Jesus from the grave.
As the church keeps time, there are a few points on the calendar where the importance of the day is due to is being between two significant celebrations. For example, I have in mind that time between the solemnity of Good Friday and the festivity of Easter. The between-time of Good Friday and Easter is marked by contrasts (death/life, darkness/light, fear/joy). If you attend these services, you know that something has changed from one day to the next. Today, the seventh Sunday, is another between time. It is less evident that we are on a threshold; however, today is a pivot point, a liminal moment, one that I would like to address for the next little while.
Last Thursday we celebrated the day of Ascension, that moment in the post-resurrection world when Jesus ascends to God, and the disciples are left a little dazed but nonetheless in a posture of worship. In our readings for that day we hear Jesus declare: I am with you always, to the end of time. In his ascent, Jesus brings his earthly life—that is, his human life, the same human life that we share—into the loving embrace of the one he calls, Father. Next Sunday, the day of Pentecost invites us to imagine again the thrill and beauty of the Holy Spirit descending upon the disciples. Pentecost defines the moment when the Spirit that rested on Jesus as his baptism, and who animated the corpse of Jesus at his rising, now rests on the bodies of his disciples. What follows is the proclamation of good news, that in Jesus, God makes of all nations a holy people. Today, however, we stand on the threshold: after Ascension yet before Pentecost. What are we to make of this?
It is customary for the Cathedral, and churches in general, to deploy a range of symbols to assist us in knowing when and, sometimes, where we are in our telling the story of God in Christ. Today, however, we are without the dramatic contrasts of Good Friday and Easter, of life/death and darkness/light. Yet, we are not without recourse. As it happens, every time we celebrate the Eucharist or Holy Communion we give expression to this time between Ascension and Pentecost. Consider the sursum corda, the beginning dialogue between you and the presider at the opening prayer we call the Great Thanksgiving. At the time of the Great Thanksgiving, our presider will say: The Lord be with you. In response we say: And also with you. Lift up your hearts—We lift them up to the Lord. And so it goes. Lift up your hearts—Sursum Corda—that’s what these Latin terms means; the lifting up of our voice, and indeed, our very selves to God. That’s ascension; to be lifted up to the presence of God, in all our humanity.
Consider also our celebration of Pentecost in the prayer of Great Thanksgiving the presider, on our behalf, calls upon the Holy Spirit to “come upon” the gifts of bread and wine. This moment is called the epiclesis. This Greek term meaning invocation. So, we invocate or call upon the Holy Spirit to come. You might recognize this moment through the gestures the Presider makes: a sign of the cross, perhaps, or a related action. If you’re following in the bulletin, this moment has the title: Invocation of the Holy Spirit. We like to keep you abreast of what’s going on after all. Behind this invocation is the understanding that when God breathes the Spirit (Spirit, after all being a term associated with breathing), life is the result. In the epiclesis, what we have in mind here is the coming alive of symbols to communicate the depth of God’s presence manifest in Jesus’s humanity: his bodily and human presence. The bread and wine become for us the body of Christ because that’s what happens when the Holy Spirit rests on the material creation, we become, with the bread and the wine, participants in the wonder of God’s very life. Pentecost is just this: the Spirit resting on human bodies and material things, making them alive to the ways and purposes of God.
What binds Ascension and Pentecost together is the body of Jesus; humbled even to death, raised in glory by the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit, and now ascended. What we have in these celebrations is not two independent events but a single movement of divine activity with humanity—the lifting of what we are to God, and the coming of who we as Christ’s body, the church. A single act of God returning and being sent; of heaven and earth being the arena of God’s activity, as if heaven and earth become the single plain upon which God is free to move with absolute freedom and love.
The time between Ascension and Pentecost—this time we find ourselves in today—is captured in John’s witness to a Jesus who speaks of glory, unity, and knowledge. It is tempting here to think of such things as being reserved for the Son of God alone. But, Jesus’ gift of himself on the cross, the Spirit’s return of this gift in Jesus resurrected and ascended, and the gracious outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost is very much about who we are, and where our lives lead to. Glory, unity, and knowledge of God; these terms define the shape of Christian life, made possible as we learn how our true goal in life is found through prayer, worship, and service. It is why Pentecost is sometimes called the “birth of the church”; it is the making alive of people who move from being a divergent, fearful, and imperfect group, to being formed as members of Christ’s body, the church. Simply put, the church is the sign of humanity coming alive in God.
Jesus is the presence of God’s promise in our world; his body incorporating heaven and earth, our life with God’s. On this in-between day, we stand on the threshold between Ascension and Pentecost—sursum corda and epiclesis—where our lives are taken up by God and through the outpouring of God’s Spirit, our community is being shaped into a holy society. Lifting our hearts to God, we are caught up into the eternal movement of God’s commitment to all creation. In, and through Jesus, we, too, have become a sign of a fully alive humanity. Pentecost awaits. So we, with St. John in his Revelation, make our final prayer: Amen! Come, Lord Jesus.