Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Upper Room

Last Sunday was "The Seventh Sunday of Easter," or in traditional BCP language, "The Sunday After the Ascension." Good natured debate on what to call it is not exactly unknown among Anglican Catholics!

Unfortunately, nobody from any tradition has ever asked me for my suggestion.

I would like the Sunday between the Ascension and Pentecost to be known simply as "The Sunday of the Upper Room." (In fact, for most of my ministry I have used "The Sunday of the Upper Room" as a subtitle for the day!)

That encourages us to gather with a real sense of expectancy born of the conviction that we are joined to the original church of Our Lady, the Twelve and the rest, "about 120" in all, on THIS day as part of their - and our - novena seeking a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

On the Mount of Olives, just before he ascended into heaven, Jesus told them to go back into the city and wait until they had received such a supernatural outpouring. Only then would they have the strength to go out, eventually to the ends of the earth (that's Australia and New Zealand!!!), proclaiming the Good News of Jesus and enlarging the community of believers.

Only as we allow the Holy Spirit to fall on us afresh - as a community and as individuals within the community - will our witness to Jesus be effective. During these days, let us seek him with real yearning, so that this forthcoming Pentecost Sunday will see us renewed deep within.

A few words about last Sunday's First Reading (Acts 1:11-14) are in order.

Most Scripture scholars, while emphasising St Luke's real value as a historian, are also interested in his theology - in other words, what he was trying to get across to his readers about Jesus and the Church in selecting and arranging the historical material in the way that he did. Look at the passage:

"After Jesus was taken up into heaven, the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day's journey away; and when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the Mother of Jesus, and with his brothers."

It is generally agreed that this precious cameo of the early Church at prayer is at the same time factual and symbolic. We know from the next verse (v.15) that there were 120 of them altogether.

John de Satage, an evangelical Anglican, was fond of referring to Mary as "The Mother of all her Son's people." He would explain that Mary "is the climax of the Old Testament people, the one to whom the cloud of witnesses from the ancient era look as their crowning glory, for it was through her response to grace that their Vindicator came to stand upon the earth. In the order of redemption she is the first fruits of her Son's saving work, the one among her Son's people who has gone all the way. And in the order of her Son's people, she is the mother." ( John de Satge, Mary and the Christian Gospel, SPCK, 1976, page 111.)

Earlier on in his book, de Satge reminds us that "As in the opening sections of the Gospel, the preliminary affairs in the Acts succeed one another in a series of connected 'snapshots.'" These are the Lord's commission, the Ascension, the prayer in the Upper Room and the replacement of the traitor Judas with Matthias.

De Satge remarks on the significance of Mary's being named among those devoting themselves to prayer in this crucial chapter of the Church's beginning: "Mary's presence in the waiting church at the start of the Acts of the Apostles is a reminder that the birth of the Redeemer was the birth of a genuinely human being." He goes on: " Just as motherhood does not end when the child is born, so the mother through whom the Christ was born was not shed at his maturity as a spent rocket is shed from a spacecraft." (page 54)

Patmos House people don't need reminding of these things, for the backdrop to the altar we erect Sunday by Sunday at Shafston College (painted by parishioner Glen Mahoney) is of Pentecost with Mary at the centre of the Apostles. That painting helps us to be aware that whenever the people of Jesus meet for prayer, Mary is there, too, joining in with her prayer and motherly love.

So, she's there, even when we don't realize it. Do you know, I believe that she's down the road at the Gospel Service at the Baptist Church on Sunday nights! She is the Mother of ALL her Son's people. Now, we might get upset with those of our brothers and sisters who don't notice her (I know I do!), but she doesn't actually mind. She's like that. She was like that in the Gospels. She's just glad that in their own way the Baptists are drawing the attention of people to her Son!

I have often wondered what that embryonic Church did during those ten days of waiting. We know they prayed. They must have sung the Lord's praises, too. They probably celebrated the Eucharist. Maybe they studied the (Old Testament) Scripture, to see the different ways that Jesus fulfilled everything in it. Perhaps in order to be cleansed vessels for the Spirit to fill, they had times of repentance and healing. I can imagine them asking each others' forgiveness for things they might have said or done amiss over the previous three years.

Now, I can't prove this, but in my imagination I like to see Mary moving like a real Mother among them, encouraging them to be open to God, encouraging them to expect the Holy Spirit to come and not just overshadow them, but to fill them with his love and power. I can easily imagine her thinking back to the time when - in fear and trepidation as well as in faith - she said to the Angel "be it done to me according to thy word." I can see her, the Mother of her Son's people, helping at least some of them to say the same, and preparing them for the fullness of the Spirit's anointing, and the joy as well as the pain and suffering that obedience to God's call would mean.

As we prepare - once again - for Pentecost, let's open ourselves completely to God that he might fill us again, NOT primarily for our blessing, but so that we might BE a blessing to all those around us whom God is drawing into the circle of his love.

In today's Office of Readings, as part of our preparation for Pentecost Sunday, we heard a wonderful passage from St Basil the Great (329-379 AD), taken from his book On the Holy Spirit (Chapter 9:22-23). The last paragraph is well worth sharing with you:

"Even as bright and shining bodies, once touched by a ray of light falling on them, become even more glorious and themselves cast another light, so too souls that carry the Spirit, and are enlightened by the Spirit, become spiritual themselves and send forth grace upon others. This grace enables them to foresee the future, to understand mysteries, to grasp hidden things, to receive spiritual blessings, to have their thoughts fixed on heavenly things, and to dance with the angels. So is their joy unending, so is their perseverance in God unfailing, so do they acquire likeness to God, so - most sublime of all - do they themselves become divine."

Finally, this is probably a good time to be reminded of the prayer with which Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council. Perhaps we should make this prayer our own as we await Pentecost 2008:

“Renew your wonders in this our day,
as by a new Pentecost.
Grant to your Church that,
being of one mind and steadfast in prayer
with Mary, the Mother of Jesus,
and following the lead of blessed Peter,
it may advance the reign of our Divine Saviour,
the reign of truth and justice,
the reign of love and peace. Amen”


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