The time between the feast of the Ascension and that of Pentecost is a period of liminality, an in-between time. Jesus has left, but the Spirit has not yet come. God’s promises have been fulfilled in Jesus; but in our liturgical observance we await the coming of the Spirit. We now live in the tension of the “already but not yet.” Today’s readings suggest that this liminal time is an occasion for prayerful preparation.
The first reading describes the intimate bond between Jesus and his closest followers. They were with him on the mount when he was taken up to heaven. They then gathered in the upper room, along with his mother and relatives, there to devote themselves to prayer in anticipation of the promised Spirit. They are now living in a liminal period. The nine days between the ascension of Jesus and the Jewish feast of Pentecost comprise a kind of novena, a time for them to reflect on the wondrous events they have witnessed and to prepare for another wondrous event yet to take place.
The Gospel reading is part of what has come to be known as Jesus’ high priestly prayer. In the context of the Last Supper, it is a prayer of anticipation. As we read the passage today, we see that God did indeed hear and answer the prayer: Jesus was glorified. We have just celebrated the feast that commemorates his exaltation.
The union that exists between Jesus, his followers and his Father is an important theme in the Gospel reading, a theme found in last Sunday’s Gospel as well. Today we are reminded that Jesus was sent by God to reveal God’s name (a glimpse of God’s very being) “to those whom you gave me out of this world.” A distinction is made between those who accept what Jesus has come to give and those who do not. These latter are referred to as “the world.” Jesus is leaving this world, but those who have received his word are not. They must remain in the world, and that is why Jesus prays for them.
In this passage, there is no mention of the Spirit who will be sent to strengthen the believers and to bring to fulfillment the work of Jesus. The focus here is on Jesus’ departure and on his followers’ continued presence in the world. But the reference to glorification suggests some dimension of fulfillment. Jesus says, “I glorified you on earth by accomplishing the work you gave me to do.” It is for this reason that he prays, “Now glorify me.”
This glorification does not rest in Jesus or his Father alone. We see this in Jesus’ further declaration, “I have been glorified in them.” Having received Jesus’ words, his followers have been granted knowledge of God, knowledge that is integral to eternal life. They now have the resources for remaining in the world and for remaining faithful in that world. Only one thing is lacking, namely the Spirit, whose spark will eventually ignite them.
The second reading assures us that this spark will indeed be given: “for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” Here we see that the Spirit will strengthen believers who are made to suffer in the name of Christ. The antagonistic attitude of others is precisely what Jesus was referring to in the Gospel passage by the phrase “the world.” One might say that the disciples’ strengthening by the Spirit is the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer.
Like the earliest followers of Jesus, and others down through the ages, we too often face the disdain and enmity of “the world.” This word is used in three different ways in the Gospel. Early in the Gospel passage it refers to the created universe (Jn 17:5). Further on in that same reading, it means human existence (v. 11a). But the “world” for which Jesus does not pray is that realm of human life and reality that is resistant to God and the things of God (vv. 6, 9).
It is this dimension of “the world” that insults the followers of Jesus, that causes them to suffer, as is described in the second reading. It is the greed of some that results in the hunger of others: the selfishness that tyrannizes, the indifference that crushes. It is the pride in human accomplishment that leads some to claim that we no longer need God. This is the world in which Jesus has left his followers. But if we are faithful to him in the midst of such suffering, “his glory is revealed,” as the second reading assures us.
Finally, the responsorial psalm offers us an appropriate prayer for this liminal period. It is a prayer of profound trust in God. It opens with a plea for help but continues immediately with expressions of confidence that God will indeed hear the cry for assistance or relief and will grant our request. Though Jesus has left the world and has left us in it, we have not been abandoned. In a very short time, Jesus’ glory will be revealed, and we will rejoice exultantly. Until then, we live in an in-between time.