+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We find ourselves in a peculiar transitional period right now, what a religious anthropologist might call a “liminal space”– that threshold period between an old reality and a new one, which may be full of hope but which can also create some disorientation and confusion. We are sharing this experience of liminality not only in the larger culture but within the church. We are starting the slow process of emerging from lockdown into a slow, deliberate reëntry into a new phase of our parish’s common life, just as many of you are experiencing a slow, deliberate reëntry into a world with hair salons and restaurants and the like.
And both of these transition periods are or will be very strange, disorienting, perhaps disconcerting. I’ve not yet been to a restaurant or barber (I may not for some time), but I can report that setting up an appointment to be the only customer in Best Buy, shepherded through the store by my own personal “Geek” was a somewhat surreal experience.
It will be even more strange when we take our first, tentative steps toward the resumption of public worship in this space. The space will look different, for one thing- it may strike some of us as too sterile. Some pews will have to be roped off, the prayerbooks and hymnals will have to be removed, there will be stations set up for bulletins and offering plates and sanitizer and extra masks, and your view of the altar will be partially obscured by a tripod for livestreaming (which I would encourage you to try to think of not merely as an electronic gadget in your field of vision, but as your fellow parishioners who will have chosen to continue joining us virtually for the time being). We will not see everybody we are accustomed to seeing, both because many will choose to remain at home and because we may need to have more services spread out throughout a Sunday. This is both keep our numbers at any one liturgy low enough to be in compliance with social-distancing requirements and to ensure adequate sanitation between those liturgies. We will not be able to see each other’s faces fully, as the diocesan guidelines require masks. We will not be able to share the sign of peace in the robust way to which this parish is accustomed. We may be able to catch up to some degree in the churchyard before or after church on sunny days, but we’ll not be permitted to sit down share a cup of coffee and have a proper chat in the parish hall. We will not be able to sing together, though some have suggested that were a familiar piece to come up during the Offertory, humming may be acceptable (we’ll see; the bishop suggested in a meeting I had with him last week that hearing familiar tunes to which we weren’t able to properly sing could be more painful than comforting, and I can see his point).
Most painful of all, while we will be permitted to gather we will be forbidden during this first, liminal phase from receiving the Blessed Sacrament. The determination made by those who crafted the diocesan guidelines, which many of you have read, is that there is simply no sufficiently safe safe way to administer Communion (even in one kind) at this time. You and I may disagree with that determination. It is, however, the bishop’s godly counsel, and I am bound by the oath of obedience I made over a decade ago to follow it.
Nevertheless, it is a great sadness. No doubt there will be some (perhaps many) who would otherwise have returned when public worship resumes who will not, because being in the church, beholding the sacrifice of the altar, and being unable to receive the Very Body of Christ sacramentally will simply be too painful. I get that. Nonetheless, I believe there is also something objectively salutary about attending to the worship of God in person (however painful or disappointing it may be) that transcends anything we may or may not “get out of it.”
There are two things I’d like to ask all of you to consider as we enter this new phase. First, consider how this time may be analogous to the time in which the apostles found themselves during this time we (luckily or perhaps providentially) find ourselves in during the church year. We are in this ten-day period between Christ’s ascension into heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. They, too, were in a liminal space.
Consider this morning’s reading from Acts. Jesus has ascended and the apostles and the Blessed Virgin go to the upper room and devote themselves to prayer. No doubt they were disoriented; perhaps they were confused. Now here’s the real confusing part! Those who joined us online for the Ascension Day mass heard the very end of Luke’s Gospel: Jesus ascends to heaven and the apostles (all eleven of them) leave glorifying God and spend their time praising him in the temple. Luke wrote that. We just heard the first several verses of Acts excepting its preface. Here the Apostles (all eleven of them; Luke makes certain to list them by name) go not to the temple but to the upper room to join Jesus’ mother and kinsmen and pray there, alone.
Is Luke simply contradicting himself? Had he forgotten between writing volume one and volume two of his account how it had actually gone down? I don’t think so. I think maybe some of the apostles were struck by how wondrously they beheld the glorification of their Lord and could not but praise him in the temple and other apostles were struck more keenly by the fact that Jesus was now, once again, taken away from them. Perhaps at different moments during this ten-day period any individual apostle may have felt more joy or more loss, more consolation or more desolation. Perhaps Peter and John and James and the Blessed Virgin weren’t quite as prepared to be quite a cheerful about this as the remaining eight apostles, so maybe they spent more time in the upper room while the others spent more time in the temple. Who knows? I suspect, though, that they are all listed together in both Luke and Acts because whatever their individual, personal feelings, they were nevertheless all of one accord where it really mattered. They all knew that for the sake of the church which was to be born on Pentecost they must do all in their power to stay focused on worshiping God, however that might have looked, and praying–wherever they might have been during that confusing liminal time–that the Paraclete would send them out in power for the sake of the Gospel when the appointed time had come.
So it will be during our own liminal time which, God willing, may start for us as soon as June 7th. Some will come to the temple to glorify God as best they can under new, strange circumstances. Others will stay in the upper room for some time. Some will come to the building on a Sunday and others will continue to join us via livestream. Perhaps the Comforter has not yet descended and alighted upon us, but we continue to pray for that in whatever way we best can.
And that leads to the other point for your consideration, which is beautifully summed up in our Lord’s final prayer with his apostles before the crucifixion, a portion of which we heard just a few minutes ago: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Jesus follows four chapters in John’s Gospel of what has been called his “farewell discourse” with what is called his “high priestly prayer”: a chapter-long request that his father would keep his disciples and all Christians who would come after united in his love. The very last thing Jesus prayed for before his Passion, after three long years of ministry, was that believers would maintain the bond of peace, love, and unity no matter what the power of evil might throw at them. This was not just because being nice is nice or because warm fluffy feelings are the most important thing in the world.
It was and is because the only way believers can live out their faith and help draw other people to the Lord Jesus is by showing a world so often defined by division and chauvinism and partisanship and a host of evils that keep us from loving each other that there is another way. There is, I believe, one and only one other way. That way is to find in the love shared between the God the Father and his Only-Begotten Son the kind of love that can hold us together in spite of everything that militates against our unity. The salvation of our souls is dependent on this, and so is the salvation of the whole world.
And what is the practical implication of this truth in this time? I think it is this. There will be some who come back to the church building, we hope on June 7–God and our cleaning supply distributor willing–, and there will be many more who do not. We cannot, cannot, allow ourselves to judge a brother or sister based on what decision he or she makes in this regard. We cannot, cannot, permit ourselves to assume the one who stays home is unduly fearful or faithless nor can we permit ourselves to assume the one who comes is simply ill-informed or reckless. We cannot, cannot permit our absence or presence to be simply a political statement we use to shame a fellow-member of the body. We must bear with one another and love one another all the more, whatever they decide is most appropriate for themselves, trusting that they came to that decision in a spirit of prayer and goodwill.
Now is neither the time for judgment nor for self-congratulatory virtue signaling. Now is the time for forbearance and patience and respect and the kind of Christian love that makes all those possible. We are entering a liminal phase–an extended Ascensiontide in the midst of pandemic–and we do not know how long this period will be. “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority,” said Jesus to the apostles in response to a similar concern in this morning’s reading from Acts. However long it lasts, though, we must spend it praying and working together for peace, unity, and concord within the Body of Christ. These are the virtues of the Kingdom of Heaven which we can, I am convinced, begin to cultivate within and among ourselves in this life in assurance of the life of the world to come.
+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.