This coming Sunday is the Day of Pentecost (for those of us in Western traditions), and it has struck me powerfully in recent years that we don’t really have a name for the time between Ascension Day and Pentecost.
The collect for the Seventh Sunday of Easter from the Book of Common Prayer bridges the gap between those saving events by connecting Jesus’ ascension with the Spirit’s outpouring: “O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us and exalt us to that place where our Saviour Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.” Still, even in that prayer itself (whose precursor, incidentally, the Venerable Bede is said to have prayed on his deathbed), you can hear how the time between Ascension Day and Pentecost is one of those liminal periods in the church’s year, like Holy Saturday, when we’re reminded of the fact that a basic task of God’s people is simply to wait. Jesus is bodily absent from his followers at this point, having ascended into heaven, and yet the Spirit has not yet been given. “And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father…” (Acts 1:4).
And the Spirit himself, after he has been poured out on the day of Pentecost, becomes a sign of a different kind of waiting but one that is still, nonetheless, waiting. His presence doesn’t so much “make up” for the absence of Jesus as insure that Jesus and his followers will one day be reunited. The Spirit acts as a kind of engagement ring, a pledge and foretaste of the still-future consummation of the Lamb’s wedding feast. The Spirit, St. Paul says, “is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (Ephesians 1:14). So the Spirit, in a sense, enables us to continue living in the liminal space in between Jesus’ first and second comings, an in-between time that was felt acutely after Jesus left and before the Spirit descended in tongues of fire in that upper room in Jerusalem.
Those of you who have read my book Washed and Waiting already know that waiting has been a biblical/theological/spiritual theme that I have tried to explore at some length. (I have often thought that I’d like to write a whole book about the range of Christian spirituality—Eucharist, prayer, Scripture, service, hope, discipline, etc.—refracted through the lens of the theme of waiting. I have a pile of notes about how each of these facets of the spiritual life could be illumined through this idea of enduring or persevering patiently, but I think my writer friend Betsy Childs has beat me to it, and you’ll definitely want to read her forthcoming book on this.) Certain elements unique to our late modern Western cultures make it difficult for us to conceive the Christian life in these terms, but any serious theology has to reckon with how central the posture of waiting is to the story Scripture tells.
I won’t linger over it now but will just note one passage that strikes me as a somewhat unexpected and yet perfectly suitable text to mention on Pentecost Sunday. In the book of Ezra, after Israel has begun to rebuild Jerusalem after their exile in Babylon, there comes this description of the first step of the restoration of the temple: “And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away” (Ezra 3:11-13). What a poignant picture this is: joy mingled with sorrow; a sense of triumph mitigated by the remembrance of the former temple’s far superior glory. And yet, the prophet’s word comes to Israel: “The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts” (Haggai 2:9). So just hang on. Hope will win out, but it may take a while!
Here is a picture of what we celebrate this Sunday with the Spirit’s coming. We believers, the temple of the living God—and that includes we gay and lesbian Christians—are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Ephesians 2:22). We shout for joy at what this means: that God is with us, that he has made our lives his home. And yet, we long for that “latter glory” that is still to come. And so we wait. “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears, we will be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
On Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate the fact that Jesus has not left us as orphans. He has given us the Comforter to be with us, the Spirit of God who dwells in us and intercedes for us. But we also, like the returned exiles in the book of Ezra, mingle our tears with laughter. We cry, we groan, we wish for more grace and peace than we actually have. And so we wait patiently, knowing the Spirit is a down payment of greater things to come. We wait in hope, for hope that is seen is no hope at all. Come quickly, Lord Jesus!