Cambridge, MA. This is an in-between time in the academic calendar. Classes have ended, but exams are being written and papers finished, and the final push on grading is still to come. Professors like me are not on summer holiday, to be sure, but neither are we as busy as we were during the hectic weeks of the semester; and we know that we will be very busy again before the students graduate and summer truly begins. Some of our students have had a wonderful year; a few have suffered too much, and may not finish their work. We are in-between, neither in winter nor summer.
It is an in-between time in Boston too. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been condemned to death for his role in the Marathon bombing, to the relief and satisfaction of some, and to the distress of others (myself included) who simply do not agree that the death penalty is ever justified. (See my Harvard interview on this last year.) As the New York Times for May 16 points out, people around here are unsettled by the whole matter. As far as I can see, there is no fierce or heated debate at the moment. It is all too sad, and we agree to disagree. And we know that it is not over; there will be appeals and reconsiderations for years, before any execution might be carried out. We are in-between, pondering violence and death, the useless taking of life; we are hoping for reconciliation, and walk in the faith that redemption is possible in an ever more violent world.
The Church too, though generally calm these days, is at least a little out of sorts here in Boston. Everyone is waiting for the Pope’s encyclical on the environment, and most of us, thinking with the Church and embracing his leadership, look forward to what will surely be a call to conscientious engagement in the battle against global warming and degradation. Some Catholics, suspicious of anything progressive and much of what Pope Francis says and does, are calculating their rationales for selective loyalty to the Pope. The parish I help out in on the weekends is in the midst of first communions, and I had the privilege yesterday afternoon of welcoming seven boys and girls to communion for the first time. And yet, right across the street there were protesters, aiming to get their fellow parishioners’ attention in an ongoing “family dispute” in the new collaborative of three parishes now becoming more or less one extended, happy/unhappy family. The familiar pieties of first communions and old energies and hurts of debate in the Church crossing paths on an uncertain weekend. We are in-between.
And even the Church calendar is in an in-between moment. Liturgically speaking at least, Christ has ascended into heaven, and the Spirit has not yet come. Neither here nor there. Like Holy Saturday, when Jesus had died but not yet risen, this 7th Sunday of East is a gap in the year, a time given over to reflection on the fact that Jesus is no longer present in the direct, visible, tangible form of his years between birth and death. All we can do, like the men and women in the upper room, is wait for the Spirit to come, whenever, wherever the Spirit will blow. (I reflected on this theme a few years ago here. Things don’t change as much as we think; perhaps we are more often than not, in-between?)
In this Year B in the cycle of readings, we’ve heard in Church the middle part of Chapter 17 of John’s Gospel. This is Jesus’ great prayer at the end of the last supper with his friends. Jesus himself is in-between: his public ministry is over, and he is just about to go to the Garden, to face the terrible things of the day to come. He is about to depart, returning to the Father, leaving behind those who followed him most closely, even to this end time. In this in-between moment – and as a comfort to all of us in our in-between moments – he prays for his disciples. He prays not just for those in the room with him that night, “but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” (17.20)
He prays that we all be safe: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled… I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” (17.11-12, 15-16)
He prays that we all be holy, one with each other and with him and his Father: “Make them holy in the truth; your word is truth. And for their sakes I make myself holy, so that they also may be made holy in truth.” (17.17, 19)
He prays us onto our mission in the world, in all the years and centuries and seasons of our lives when we are in-between, without his visible and sure presence, and without a sure feel for the driving force of the Spirit: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” (17.18) He expects us to find our way, and not to stumble too much in the dark, even before the Spirit comes upon us.
In-between holiness: perhaps this is the best we can hope for, much of the time. In all the in-between moments of our personal lives and work, in our divided society and amidst the growing pains of our Church, we can know this: Jesus, once and future lord of our lives, prays that we be protected, be holy, be on mission. He may have left and not yet returned, but the blessing stays on. And this, we are assured, is a joy that cannot be taken from us: “I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” (17.13)