Hyde Park, Chicago. Perhaps the news is no worse right now than in past weeks; perhaps an early summer heat wave here in Chicago (where I am participating in an American Academy of Religion seminar on theologies of religious pluralism and comparative theology [more on this in a future blog]) only makes the bad news seem more relentless: the rise in unemployment, the mess that is our economy, the helplessness and seeming heartlessness of the ruling class; floods and tornadoes that tear lives apart and offer increasing evidence of violent shifts in climate; the growing scarcity of water in parts of Africa, and the emerging global food shortage; the ongoing violence in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan — and so on.
Usually, we can turn to our faith for help in the face of bad news: not necessarily any quick remedies, and certainly not a diversion from the harsh realities of our world in 2011, but at least for the benefit of some confidence that God is with us, Christ beside us, the Spirit still at work around us.
But sometimes it is good not to depend on these eternal realities, and this is a time to look at the world with stark honesty, as if the truths of our faith were no longer present.
We are, after all, in that brief twilight period between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday. If we follow the narrative in the first chapter of Acts, as our first reading this Sunday does, we are with the apostles, Mary and the men and women gathered with her in the upper room: “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” (Acts 1:12-14)
Two absences mark this moment. First, Jesus has ascended to heaven, and is no longer available to his disciples in the ways familiar to them from the time they first met him. Even if the risen Christ was startlingly different, he was nevertheless still that Jesus who walked with them, spoke to them, ate at their table. Now he is gone.
Second, the Spirit, promised by Jesus, has not yet come. They have not yet received the new energy that would infuse those first women and men of the Church and give them strength in the face of all obstacles. And so they wait for some ten days, in the upper room, praying with memories of what used to be theirs, and hopes for what might come, some time in the future.
I would like to think that in that short in-between time they were able to look at the world with utter honesty, their eyes open, without romanticism, simply seeing the human condition starkly as it is, facing it without any sure consolation in Christ, or strength in the Spirit.
And I would like to think that this week we are invited to share that in-between experience, as it were fasting, deprived for a few days of the familiar presence of Christ and Spirit.
For a few days, we are invited to be on our own, to look starkly, honestly, at the world around us, at the suffering of so many of our brothers and sisters, without immediately reinterpreting things in Christ, in the Spirit. For a few days, we are invited to be as it were bereft of religion and religions. In this absence of Christ and Spirit, we may be allowed to see the world as do those around us who have no religious grounding, who do not see the world through religious lenses, in accord with religious tradition, by the eyes of faith.
Living this week as if without Christ and the Spirit need not mean that we are to sink into depression or despair. Living without religious certainties need not be the cause of paralysis. Many of those who live without religious faith — secular humanists, for instance, or pragmatic materialists who simply take life as it is— still see grounds for working for the good of the human family. They can find joy in the simple pleasures of being alive, while yet recognizing the violence, decay, and death that surround us. If they find joy in living, they can do so because we humans are here, for short time, and are obliged to one another as long as we are here. Perhaps we can share that particular raw honesty and bare courage for a few days?
It is just for a week, after all. But then, when Pentecost arrives, the gift of the Spirit should be less a confirmation of an old, comforting Christian way of seeing things, and this time more of a push to keep seeing with utter honesty the woes and travails that beset our planet earth, where Christ and Spirit often seem, to many, to be simply missing, gone and not come back.
So let us not waste this most unusual week in the Church's year.