Wednesday, May 9, 2018
50 = 40 + 10
Easter lasts for fifty days. On the fiftieth day of Easter we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, a word that literally means "fifty." But Pentecost is still a day of Easter. After Pentecost, we will switch to the green of ordinary time, but the day when the Holy Spirit comes upon the apostles is still a celebration of Easter. And that, in part, makes this coming Sunday so strange.
On the fortieth day of Easter, Jesus ascended into heaven. That's tomorrow. But, in that strange way of waiting for something that has already come, a way of waiting that the church is really good at, we spend the next nine days, including Sunday, stuck in between the ascension of Jesus and the descent of the Holy Ghost. In the prayer book, the official name for this Sunday is "The Seventh Sunday of Easter: The Sunday after Ascension Day," which itself holds us in that two-fold tension of celebrating the resurrection and ascension without experiencing the consummation of the promised Spirit. It's a strange time that we mark by going back in liturgical time to Jesus' prayer for his disciples at the Last Supper (John 17:6-19), a recapturing of that first farewell, which gets important retroactively into the second.
Our collect for this Sunday puts into words the emotion of this moment: "Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit." Jesus has been exalted, but do not forget us. Send us the Comforter, the Advocate, the Holy Ghost. We are still celebrating the Lord's resurrection. I suppose we're celebrating the ascension, too. It is, after all, the exaltation of Jesus to his heavenly throne. But we are also left wanting more, looking for the one who is to come to us the following Sunday. And that gives our celebration just the slightest tinge of sadness, of longing.
Jesus' prayer for his disciples is a reminder that our job as followers of Jesus is to be here even though Jesus is gone ahead of us: "And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you...I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one." But we are not alone. We may pretend liturgically to be in that place where we are waiting, but that reenactment quickly gives way to our present truth. The Holy Spirit is with us, and, as Jesus said, we should rejoice because, if he did not depart, we could not receive the Spirit. Our waiting this Sunday, therefore, is as purposeful and hopeful as our waiting during the Paschal Triduum, when we wait for the darkness of Good Friday to pass into the light of Easter. We are waiting for something as important to us, which is God with us. Just as a Lenten observance enhances our celebration of Easter, taking seriously this time of waiting helps us celebrate the gift of the Spirit.