A Season to Grow Wise In

Good morning on this seventh (and last) Sunday of Easter. Next Sunday is the day of Pentecost, which begins a new liturgical season.

Yesterday, of course, was the consecration of our new bishop Matt Heyd at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in the city. Torrential rain notwithstanding, it was a wonderful event. Douglass Hatcher our former warden was there serving as an usher. I’m guessing others of you might have been in the crowd--it was packed

The service had all the pomp and history you’d expect: the pounding on and then opening up of the huge bronze doors in the back of the church as trumpets played Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. I think that was for the entrance of the Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, but I wasn’t sure because you can barely see down the length of the cathedral. It claims to be the largest cathedral in the world, and however they measure these things it’s at very least among the largest. 

Then, as Matt the bishop elect, dressed in his plain white robe (which is what priests and bishops wear before they’re vested with their ordination regalia), as Matt walked up that long aisle of the nave, you could hear a slow-moving muffled wave of applause greeting him. It took about 10 minutes for him and the applause to make its way from the back to the front, where we clergy were sitting. That’s how long the cathedral nave is.

It was incredible, in all sorts of unexpected ways. 

Bishop Heyd doesn’t start his work in full until this time next year. It’s the custom in our diocese to have the new bishop serve alongside the old bishop for a year before taking over. Which we’ve all known, but this time there’s a sense of impatience among the clergy, the feeling that Matt is more than ready and capable and it’s time for change. But we have to wait. You can’t serve in the church and not know that things move a little slower than in other institutions. 

As I sat in that service (all 2 ½ hours of it!) I thought about the liturgical season we’re in, Ascensiontide, which began last Thursday with Jesus’ ascent into heaven, and ends next Sunday with the Holy Spirit’s descent on the apostles and thus the start of the church, at Pentecost. We get this framework from the Gospel of Luke and its sequel, the book of Acts, in our Bible. Forty days after Easter, Jesus, standing before the disciples, rose up and left them for good, but not before promising that the presence and comfort, support, and inspiration of the Holy Spirit would take his place. They just had to wait. But it would come.

Ascension is like the church’s nod to seasons of liminality in our lives. Liminal comes from the Latin word, threshold, or door. It’s when we’ve left the old behind, but aren’t yet sure what takes its place; we’re between, too late to turn back, but not yet sure of (or confident in) what comes next. I guess we might say we’ve reached the limit, obviously a related word, but not quite capturing that sense of being neither here nor there, liminal, at the threshold.

The older we get, the longer the list of these liminal moments in our lives. We’ve been between jobs, between relationships. One of the greatest stresses in life (as many here have experienced) is moving, being between communities, missing the old, not yet situated in the new. Some know the terrible liminal moment between a medical scan and knowing the results.

We can also have liminal seasons in our faith life; I’ve walked through these with a number of you. What you used to believe seems inadequate, rings hollow. Maybe you left another tradition and wandered about confused before finding St. James. I love being the church on the other side of that liminal phase, welcoming people in a safe embrace. But I know that can go the other way, too, where I’ve had to watch people go, and enter a period of confusion and loss before hopefully making their way back here, but not always. 

Liminal seasons in one’s faith are hard. You may feel abandoned by God. Even priests go through these phases, very much so. It’s just that we’re forced to figure them out because our livelihood depends on it. And that’s kind of a blessing, I’ve found. Not having the option of giving up.

Communities go through liminal periods, as individuals do. As I mentioned, our diocese is in one, waiting for Matt to step into his role as head bishop and quite a bit anxious and impatient that that isn’t happening sooner. In a year’s time we’ll be, as a country, back in that dreaded liminal, transitional state where a presidential term is coming to an end and no one knows what’s next. I’m not looking forward to going through that again. 

Parishes go through liminal seasons all the time--in leadership, identity, mission, motivation. 

We priests are advised in such times to be calm, steady, non-anxious, not to try to jump ahead too soon, because, like them or not, there’s value to these times when we’re between things. It’s where our hearts are softened, our egos knocked down a bit, and our hardened certainties fall away, opening us up in ways we hadn’t been before. It’s where we’re kind of ideal Christians, really. Which is probably why God seems to bring about such moments time and again in our lives. 

Live through enough of them, and you will grow wise.

So, whether you find yourself settled, in transition, or you’re not sure--or maybe it’s a little of both… wherever you are, I wish you a blessed and meaningful Ascensiontide.