In the name of Christ: who was, and who is, and who is to come. Amen.
The Seventh Sunday of Easter – that Sunday that follows the Ascension of Christ into heaven, but precedes the Feast of Pentecost – is sort of like that line from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s a Sunday that’s all about anticip -- -- -- pation. It’s a Sunday that’s defined by my least favorite thing: waiting.
When I was growing up, it was a source of constant amusement in my family – my lack of patience. If something was going to happen, I just never could understand why it couldn’t happen now. And Michael will tell you now, I’m still not very good at waiting. He sometimes has a hard time buying me Christmas presents, because if I actually want something, I’m likely just to get it myself. On more than one occasion I’ve been opening a package from Amazon in late December only to hear Michael groan that I’ve just ruined his plans.
While I have many gifts, waiting for the good thing I’m expecting to come really isn’t one of them. The thing is, waiting, expecting, hoping… these are spiritual gifts. For me, at least, and I think for a lot of us, they’re gifts that don’t always come naturally. They need cultivation and nurturing in order to blossom.
In the first reading this morning, from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear these apostles struggling with their failure to really understand Christ’s timeline. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”, they ask. We’ve followed you all this time – are you finally going to do the work we’ve been waiting for you to do? Will we finally get the payoff we’ve been expecting?
Jesus’ response is basically three-fold: first, he says that it’s none of their business. “It is not for you to know,” he says. But the second part of the answer is a reiteration of the promise: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes…” So hold your horses (a phrase I heard all the time when I was growing up). Finally, in the third part of his answer, he tells them in a gentle way that they’re still thinking too small. They want to know about the restoration of political power in Israel, but Christ is promising more. He says, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, [but not just Jerusalem, also] in all Judea and Samaria, and [even] to the ends of the earth.” The Kingdom of God is more than you’re allowing yourself to imagine.
So they wait. Christ has left, but the Holy Spirit hasn’t come. They’re in the middle, between what was and what was to be. But I think what really surprises me most about this story is that they really do wait. And not just wait, but they give themselves over to the spiritual discipline of waiting. They don’t just thumb through magazines, or binge watch TV. They don’t “wait” by filling their time or taking a trip or finding some way to entertain themselves. The writer of Acts tells us that they practiced this holy waiting by getting together with the other followers of Jesus and “constantly were devoting themselves to prayer.”
That’s where waiting becomes a holy thing. It’s not just about being willing to pass the time, but it’s about how we pass the time. Waiting, expectation, anticipation – they become holy when we use them to listen.
There’s a common misconception about prayer – that it’s about speaking. But in devoting ourselves to prayer we learn that as much as praying is about the words we say, it is also about the ways that we listen. In fact, the main purpose of the words is to guide our listening.
I was telling Mary earlier this week about an icon I saw on my last retreat at Holy Cross. It was in the room where I was staying – an icon of St. Benedict. Now – there’s nothing particularly interesting about that – an icon of St. Benedict in a monastery. But what made this icon different was his gesture. Usually, we see him holding a crozier and a book – celebrating his tradition as both a teacher and a leader. But in this particular icon he was simply holding his finger in front of his mouth, shushing. The single word written on his icon: listen.
In these days, when we sit, waiting for the Holy Spirit to come upon us and to give us all the power we need to be faithful witnesses of Jesus Christ – I invite you to practice listening. There will come a point in your life – if there hasn’t already – when you need to be devoted to prayer. When we’re consumed with concern for a loved one; when we’re waiting for news; when we’re somehow not yet where or when we know we need to be – that’s when it’s time to listen. That’s when it’s time to trust that Christ will not leave us alone. That’s when it’s time to look for the Holy Spirit, our persistent guide and guardian.
I still hate waiting. I probably always will. But when I am successful at using my waiting and not merely languishing as time passes, I can sometimes see how it matters; how it helps; I can see how it plays a critical role in a mature life of faith.
Christ will not leave us alone.
We can count on the Holy Spirit.
Just wait. But don’t just wait. Use the wait as the gift that it can be. Amen.