A Time of Waiting (Acts 1:8 ff)
The Seventh Sunday of Easter A (2020) Boarbank Hall
Our Scriptures were written long after the events they record. They are short on details that we later people would love to know. In today’s readings for Mass we find the apostles in a relatively large company returning to the Upper Room in Jerusalem to await the coming of the Spirit. And in the excerpt from St John’s Gospel we find Jesus, seemingly in that same Upper Room, preparing the Apostles for life when he will no longer be physically present with them.
These readings have the character of farewell discourses. Such normally look back on the life of the main speaker as he offers guidance for what will come afterwards. One of the most touching of all is the farewell of St. Paul to the Elders of Ephesus at Miletus (Acts 20:17-37).
He described in detail what he had been doing, exhorted them to follow his example, hoped that they would emulate his attitude and continue to further the Christian message. They threw their arms round him and wept, because he had said they would never see his face again (Acts 20:37). So as we look at today’s readings we can indulge in a little imagination to appreciate what these early Christians had been through and what they were advised to expect. We should have no difficulty in using our imagination as the Coronavirus rages world wide. People are now going back to singing the songs so beloved during the last war, “We’ll meet again”, “We’ll gather lilacs in the spring again”…nostalgia for what was and the hope of return to better times ahead.
The Apostles Wait
According to Acts after the Ascension the apostles moved from the Mt. of Olives to Mt. Zion and the Upper Room. It is painful to recall that after the Last Supper several of these same people went in exactly the opposite direction with Jesus to Gethsemane. It lies in the olive grove at the foot of the Mt. of Olives. They had left with little sensitivity for the horror that lay ahead. Now they are back on Mt.Zion again waiting. The details are unclear. After the death of Jesus some of the apostles must have returned to Galilee to a normal life- that is the impression given at Jn 21. (What was recounted by the evangelist at Jn 13, the Last Supper, and the new commandment to love one another, was probably written long after that paschal experience). Certainly Jerusalem never lost its centrality as the starting point for evangelising the world. At least the apostles knew where they should begin, but how could they possibly have imagined where they would end up? Of course that is the reason the evangelists gave us the Pentecost story. A new set of factors had a powerful effect on the whole situation. There was suddenly an explosion of devoted witness to preaching Christ as the Good News.
Doubting Thomas was a good example of what most people experience: let us wait and see. It is a normal and entirely human disposition. So much of our lives is defined by the before and after of things glad and sad. How often we hear reference to ‘After the War’. The dreadful experiences of unimaginable horror recollected as collective and personal at all levels. People had tried to live humanly and faithfully day after day and year after year, hoping that eventually peace and something like normality would be restored. In our technological age the details of these experiences have been mapped carefully. There was very little to be happy about during those terrible years. And when it was all over the pain of loss did not disappear with victory. Were people happy afterwards? On armistice day in 1918 and 1945 spontaneous joy manifested itself. The streets were filled with people celebrating- those who were left, with some hope of a future freed from the horrors of the past. Afterwards a sort of selective amnesia can come about, remembering only what we want to. We simply have to move on. But we must never forget. In so many ways we are the sum of our memories. ‘Do this in memory of me’. The Church continues to live out the total memory of Jesus, with the most important occasions highlighted as liturgical feasts. With the memory comes the hope.
On the day of the baptism of a friend’s baby son, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who was executed for opposing Hitler in April 1945) wrote to the boy from his prison cell, as follows:
“By the time you have grown up, the old country parsonage and the old town will belong to a vanished world. But the old spirit, after a time of misunderstanding and weakness, withdrawal and recovery, preservation and rehabilitation, will produce new forms. To be deeply rooted in the soil of the past makes life harder, but it also makes it richer and more vigorous. There are in human life certain fundamental truths to which men will always return sooner or later. So there is no need to hurry; we have to be able to wait. ‘God seeks what has been driven away’ (Ecclesiastes 3.15) (Letter and Prayers from Prison, Ed. E.Bethge, SCM, 1971).
Many people are now asking when the present crisis will be over. And nobody knows the answer. But many are also asking, expecting that it will be over, if we will have learned anything from the experience. It is widely noticed that people have been kind and caring of others at this time, never greater than what is shown by our medical staffs. It has been noticed and recorded with appreciation how the streets are traffic free in the heart of our greatest cities. People are having a real experience of pure air without any pollution, highways without litter, the skies blue without jet streams. Could one hope for a continuation of this, a hope that people can still make a living without pursuing enormous profits? That the world is to be loved and not abused? And all the people in it?
Back to Jerusalem. The apostles could hardly have imagined their future. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:17). It is an unfinished story retaining its mystery. “Whatever is true.. .. whatever is lovely…think of these things…and the God of peace will be with you" (Phil 4:8-9). That is the ultimate hope for us all. It is a good time to reread Pope Benedict’s encyclical, Saved by Hope (2007). Amen.
Rev. Richard J.Taylor