The Ascension of the Lord in the church’s calendar traditionally falls 40 days after Easter. But just as the season of Lent is 40 days long, and Noah rode out a catastrophic flood in an ark for 40 days, and Moses spent 40 days on Mt. Sinai conversing with God, and Jonah preached for 40 days to the people of Nineveh calling them to repentance, and Elijah went without food or water for 40 days on Mount Horeb, and Jesus spent 40 days in the desert being tempted by the devil, then appeared to his disciples for 40 days after the resurrection, scripture scholars understand 40 to stand for a significant period of trial, testing, and probation. 40 was not really an exact value. But its meaning was exactly as God’s plan required. And in each instance 40 is mentioned, it stands for a period of challenge, whose eventual resolution proclaimed God’s wisdom and mercy, and humanity’s deliverance at the mighty hand of God.
Now regardless of how long it takes for us to emerge from this worldwide health crisis, it will have been a significant period of trial, testing, and probation in what we might vaguely understand as God’s plan. 40 days ago was Tuesday 14 April, so the count is off. The WHO declared the coronavirus to be a global pandemic on 11 March, 40 days after which would have been 20 April. 40 weeks after 11 March would be 16 December 2021. And 40 years would be 2060. Thank God 40 as understood by scripture scholars is not an exact value. So we can rest assured this significant period of trial, testing, and probation need not last 40 anything long. But if we believe God is involved in how all this eventually resolves, we know that when it does, God’s wisdom and mercy will be proclaimed, and humanity’s deliverance at the mighty hand of God.
So after Jesus is taken up to heaven 40 days after the resurrection, his disciples are left standing on the hill probably wondering to themselves, “What do we do now?” Well, Jesus did give them clear instructions not to leave Jerusalem until they had received the gift of the Holy Spirit, which they did although probably without really understanding why. They didn’t know what they were waiting for or what he expected from them. They were fearful, lost, untested, and unorganized. They couldn’t even have known what scripture scholars figured out generations later, that when their significant period of challenge eventually resolved, God’s wisdom and mercy would be proclaimed, and humanity’s deliverance at the mighty hand of God.
To their credit they spent their waiting in quiet prayer and reflection together behind locked doors and away from the busyness of life. They didn’t emerge from the upper room prematurely announcing an aggressive 5-point plan to take over the local economy and depose their foreign oppressors, stealing the Holy Spirit’s thunder. But neither did they mope around all day in grungy bed clothes binging on junk food and mindless entertainment. Instead they spent long hours clearing their hearts and minds, eagerly anticipating a radical new way of thinking and speaking and living because they couldn’t just go back to their old lives of fishing and collecting taxes and plotting the overthrow of the Roman empire, or whatever it is they all did. They faced a world of tremendous challenge and awesome possibility. Their lives would never be the same.
Graduation would have been just such a significant marker in the lives of the class of 2020. We who experienced in our turn the gamut of emotions that typically accompanies high school, college, and graduate school commencement festivities in years past know that overwhelming sense of accomplishment and that weight of new-found responsibility. It is often both exciting and exhausting, glorious and bittersweet, exhilarating and nerve-wracking. At the very moment we cross a finish line in a race we didn’t quite begin intentionally and sometimes only grudgingly completed, we find ourselves also bounding across a new starting line in a new race that is hopefully better defined and more deliberately chosen. The future will always hold tremendous challenge and possibility. And few graduates even have an inkling where to begin.
We know the pandemic isn’t over. We know it won’t be over for a long while. But we are impatient and eager to get on with our lives, the very lives we once knew and loved, which we also have to admit will never be quite the same. But have we learned from the example of the apostles sitting in their version of quarantine if only because they couldn’t afford to attract undue attention and possibly endanger their own lives and that of their loved ones for having associated with an executed criminal? When we sat in quarantine, did we take time for prayer and quiet reflection so to open our hearts and minds to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for when we emerge on Pentecost morning? Or were we satisfied to mope around in grungy bed clothes binging on junk food and mindless entertainment while we lamented lost opportunities that fed our selfishness and greed? Certainly we still have time to wake up to our drastically altered reality and with greater purpose seek God’s inspiration as we chart a new course that’s hopefully better defined and deliberately chosen. We already possess the gift of the Holy Spirit. But we should always be ready to welcome a new Pentecost to rain down fire upon us. In Jesus we are always being transformed and yet always new.
So perhaps we cannot be satisfied with just returning to our old lives and our old and familiar ways of being church and being human society. If our quarantine has taught us nothing besides how much we dislike being told what to do and what not to do, or how much we detest taking responsibility for our neighbor’s safety and welfare, or how much we hate that our pursuit of selfish gain had just been rudely interrupted, then maybe we actually deserve this period of trial, testing, and probation, all 40 days, weeks, or years of it.
In the second reading Paul prays that God give us his people God’s very Spirit that results in knowledge of him, so that the eyes of our hearts may be enlightened, and we may come to know the hope that belongs to his call, the richness of his inheritance, and the greatness of his power. This deep knowledge and insight comes about when the eyes of our hearts are opened, enabling us to see beyond what our senses perceive, deep into the heart of God. And when we see into the heart of God, how can we just pick up where we left off? How can we return to living shallow lives where we are often cranky and exhausted and mediocre most of the time?
Pentecost marks the outpouring of God’s awesome inspiration and enthusiasm and creativity inviting us to reimagine a revitalized church and human society so to better reflect God’s plan for his holy people and all creation. And we will need new vision to see what God sees, and a much deeper trust in God’s abiding mercy and providence no matter how long this period of trial and testing and probation takes, give or take 40 whatever.
This mass was offered for the people of the parish.
Rolo B Castillo © 2020