Sunday, June 12, 2011

Pentecost and What Comes Next

Of all the passages of Scripture I've been pointed to over the years, Acts 2 must be among the most frequently pointed-to. I've interacted regularly with people who have longed to rediscover the "Acts 2" church--that church described in verses 42-47, who pooled all their resources and curried the favor of all the people.

Those folks (and I with them) always skipped past what makes up the bulk of Acts 2: the apostle Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost, when the earliest followers of Jesus were rained on by tongues of fire, the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and let loose with a cacophony of exhortation to turn to God as personified in Jesus. Peter made sense of the madness, and "there were added that day about three thousand souls" (Acts 2:41).

Today is Pentecost Sunday; next week in the church's calendar begins Ordinary Time, which will characterize the life of the church until Advent--half a year from now. "Ordinary time" is nowhere near as sexy as "Pentecost," but the two go together nevertheless, like Acts 2:1-41 and Acts 2:42-47. Two years ago I reflected on all that happens in Acts 2--all that is being said there about what it means to be the church--in a post on my other blog, Strangely Dim. I repost it here as a way of honoring the day and not losing sight of what comes next.

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It seems presumptuous and even a bit preachy to pre-empt our summer of escapist fantasy by appealing to the church calendar, but as I thought about this writing experiment my mind kept going back to Kimberlee Conway Ireton's second chapter on Ordinary Time in The Circle of Seasons. Turns out she takes on pretty bold-facedly the longing for what lies beyond our immediate grasp:

When I was a girl, I longed to experience what Emily Starr, the heroine of L. M. Montgomery's Emily trilogy, called "the flash." . . . I wanted to experience that glimpse of the transcendent, to be thrilled with the momentary parting of the veil between heaven and earth.

What I have since realized is that I do have these glimpses of the glory beyond and that they are a mixed blessing. The parting of the veil fills me with awe and delights my soul, but it also opens in me a yearning, a deep and almost painful desire. . . . In the past, I have grasped at whatever ushered me into the enchanted realm beyond the veil--the sleeve of my husband's crisply striped shirt, the roses fresh-cut from my rosebushes and sitting in a bowl on the counter, the crescendo of the organ as we sing the name of Jesus in church--in an attempt to replicate the experience and so quench my desire to live in moments of mystery. This never works.

Summer may be the time when our escape impulse is most intense; it may even be the time when escape seems most sensible and achievable. This is summer, after all, where everything flourishes and even blazes with life. But for the church, summer means Ordinary Time.

Starting a mere week after Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate the miraculous anointing of the church, and lasting till Advent, when our longing for the return of God becomes so acute that we can no longer ignore it--Ordinary Time is the longest season in the church calendar. Ordinary Time is so ordinary that according to many traditions it happens twice each year: from barely summer to nearly winter, and between Epiphany and Lent.

It strikes me that the Scriptures prepare the church for this prolonged ordinariness. Pentecost is marked in the early verses of Acts 2 with a big bang--fire and wind and dynamic preaching and mass conversion and all that stuff. But it very quickly gives way to the later verses of Acts 2, which are profound in their plainness. Here the Scriptures describe teaching and eating and praying (oh my). Even miracles are described in the passive voice. If you want to get your church all riled up, read them Acts 2:1-41. If you're brushing up on your bureaucracy, read 42-47.

Of course, there's awfully cool stuff happening in the ordinary days of the Church of Latter Acts 2. Passive or not, wonders and miraculous signs were done. Meals were shared. Property was redistributed according to need. The people's favor was enjoyed. And daily, the chapter ends by observing, people were being saved.

Kimberlee notes that the veil separating us from a more wondrous view of God is not really ours to pull back.

No one can look on God and live. It is not simply because we are sinful and God is holy. No, it is because God is real, and our finite minds cannot comprehend nor our frail bodies bear the eternity and majesty--the utter realness--of God.

Instead, when we embrace Ordinary Time as part of whole gift of our existence, we sometimes find ourselves pleasantly surprised by how thin the space we occupy actually is. The veil itself drops long enough to give us a sideways glance behind it at ultimate reality. We're reminded that even the most ordinary time is undergirded by something extraordinary.

We live the bulk of our lives in the daily, doing the same tasks again and again--preparing food, showering, dressing, checking voicemail or email, doing dishes or laundry, commuting to work--and it can come to feel like a grind, pointless and redundant. But it is precisely because these tasks are daily that they have such transformative potential. . . .

In sharpening our physical senses to be more aware of this world, we are also quickening our spirits, opening them to the earthly beauty that surrounds us so that we will be more ready to receive visions of the unearthly beauty that lies just beyond our senses on the other side of the veil. As with any grace, we cannot force or demand such a vision. We can only wait for it, attentively and hopefully, as we engage in the relationships and work that constitute our lives.

The most extraordinary moments, it seems, come not when we run away from the ordinary but when we walk by faith right through it.

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