The ten days from the feast of the Ascension to Pentecost (this year, May 13 to May 23) is a special, and rather odd, time in the history of the Christian community, at least as we hear about this period as reported by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. Jesus has ascended into heaven forty days after the Resurrection, and will no more be present in a familiar form, even in his resurrected bodily form. The fiftieth day coincides more or less with the Jewish feast of Shavuot, a celebration both of the harvest and of the giving of the Torah at Sinai, and will become also the Christian feast of Pentecost. Only then will the Spirit descend on the community, breathing life and fire into those women and men gathered in the upper room, empowering them to speak in the name of Jesus. In-between, neither here nor there, they were left on their own, after the familiar Christ and before the coming Spirit.
A ten day waiting period in-between does not seem like a lot — except that those women and men did not know that it was only a ten day period. All Jesus had told to them was this:
"On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. (Acts 1.4)
Wait: They knew that things would never be the same again, but what would come next, and when, was not clear to them. Waiting —for a bus, for the springtime, for an important phone call, for the end of a pandemic — can be very hard, but waiting for God is hard and mysterious, and requires a certain humility. By Luke’s calculation, while Jesus could have given the Spirit immediately, instead he had them watch and wait, to learn how to find him when he was not present. Wait for a week, or a month, or a year or ten years. Do not stop waiting.
So they go from the Mount of Olives, where the Ascension took place, back where they had come from:
"The apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. (1.12-13a)
That is, they returned to the room where they had been, presumably where the Last Supper had taken place, and where Jesus had appeared to them after the Resurrection more than once. This is a good idea: when God is missing from our lives for a time, go back or think back to the times and places where God had been most present to you, go there, and you will still find scents and traces of the God you love, waiting for you.
And what did they do there? They prayed together:
"Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. (1.13b-14)
They prayed there, in the in-between time, in that leftover place. They could have gone to the Temple, perhaps they did that; they could have begun breaking bread together, perhaps they did that too. The main thing though was that those women and men stayed together and prayed together, right where they were.
Perhaps it was that prayer which made them free and gave them clarity and honesty finally to reckon with what had happened. In that in-between time they were able to face up to the great shame that had come upon the community only a few weeks earlier: the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, one of their very own, one of Jesus’ personally selected apostles. With this in mind, Peter speaks to the wider group of disciples who had known Jesus before the crucifixion:
"On one of those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, “Sisters and brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. He was one of our number and shared in our ministry of service.” (1.15-17)
Peter does nothing to soften the blow or romanticize what happened. He reminds everyone of what they surely knew, that Judas came to a gruesome end, perhaps in despair, alone and unloved:
"With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood. “It is written in the Book of Psalms, ‘May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it.’ (Psalm 69.25) (1.18-20a)
Brutal honesty; thus ends Judas, whom we knew and walked with since the beginning. Think about that for a while, Peter is saying.
Still, they had to move on, even in an uncertain interim period. What to do? Peter then quotes a second Psalm, and invites the community, even in the uncertain in-between time, to fill that sad vacancy as best they can, from among those who knew Jesus, who were there from the very beginning — the one simple but absolutely necessary requirement for servant leadership in those early days:
Peter continued, “May another take his place of leadership.” (Psalm 109.8) Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” (1.20b-22)
Peter — a leader but no authoritarian — did not presume to make a choice on his own, but rather in a very communal way. The community selected two men and then cast lots (perhaps like putting names in a hat and picking one out):
So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas, also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this ministry of service and leadership in mission, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles. (1.23-26)
We never hear of Matthias again, and the impression we get is that Barsabbas would have been just as good a choice (and, I might add, so would one of the many women present!), but the point seems clear: after the betrayal and its sad follow-up, after admitting the inexcusable tragedy of betrayal, then do your best to fill the gap by choosing a new apostle from among yourselves. Narrow your choice to a few, roll the dice (so to speak) and let God make the final choice. Then get back to praying and waiting, for as long as it takes. Jesus is gone, the Spirit is yet to come, but you are still God’s people, so do the best you can, and God will be with you.
Are we not in a similar in-between period? Covid is ending but not over. Sure, despite terrible losses and lingering effects, we are mostly doing well, but other nations are doing horribly and the end is nowhere in sight. We wait for a better day. Since the murder of George Floyd we talk more about racism and the systemic violence imbedded in our society, and even those of us who are white glimpse injustice more clearly; but we cannot be sure yet that anything is really changing. We wait. We live amid still tumultuous political and cultural shifts in this country, and it is uncertain where we will be as a nation and in our local communities in 2022 or 2024 or beyond. We wait. At this writing, the sad story of violence in Israel and Palestine continues. Will there ever be a just peace for all on this earth? We wait. We live in a Church that is changing greatly: the number of priests continues to decline, and so too the number of regular Mass attendees; scandals still erupt here and there; political and social issues divide us, since we obviously disagree among ourselves on the best ways to be good and honest Catholics in our diverse society. We wait.
We are called, on this in-between Sunday, to imagine ourselves at a loss, hopeful but somewhat orphaned, like those women and men who had seen Jesus return to the Father, and only knew vaguely that a Spirit would come, sooner or later. Let us try our best to imitate them, gathering, remembering, confessing what has gone wrong, but doing our best to make amends and find new leaders in our midst, from among those who can with humility say, “I have met Christ, Christ has called me to walk with him and I have tried my best,” even as we leave to God the final choice on real leadership in the Church.
This in-between Sunday is a gift and test, let us make the most of it.
(+ You can view an earlier version of this homily as preached in our weekend recorded Mass here.
+As previously announced a few times, this series, started when the pandemic hit in March 2020 and the churches were closed, will end on next Sunday, Pentecost. There are over 60 homilies in the series, and you can even read here what I wrote last year about this same reading.)