BISHOP JEFFREY R. HAINES
This is the time of the year when we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord. As a feast, the Ascension of the Lord commemorates a number of things in relation to Jesus. We recall His departure to Heaven, his exaltation at the right hand of the Father, his acclamation as Lord and the Institution of His Reign as King of the Universe.
We also acknowledge that the feast expresses something about the Church, as the Apostles came to grips with a new reality. Previously, the lives of the Apostles and Jesus were intimately intertwined in very tangible, earthly experience. They walked in his company. They listened to his proclamation of the Gospel. They saw the wondrous results of his miracles and signs.
Now, things are in the process of changing. Jesus has died and risen, and he speaks about leaving, returning to the Father and sending a Paraclete, the Advocate who is the Holy Spirit. What once was now is disappearing, and what will be has yet to come.
Anthropologists speak about that process of coming to grips with a new reality as a “Liminal State.” The term comes from the Latin word Limina, meaning “threshold.” It refers to a time of transition. It points to a time when things are no longer the same, and there is no surety yet as to what will come. A “Liminal State” is a rather unique time because of this sense of uncertainty. It is precisely because of this sense of uncertainty that people find it uncomfortable and not necessarily very favorable.
That clearly was the case for the Apostles when dealing with the departure of Jesus. In the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, they ask Jesus, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?” And, after Jesus is lifted up in his return to heaven, there are two angelic men dressed in white who ask the Disciples, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” In both cases, the Apostles are seeking to cling to the past. They want to hold on to what was. They were uncomfortable in the uncertainty of the “Liminal State.”
So it would seem one of the blessings of this Feast of the Ascension is to reveal something important about the nature of “Liminal States.” In fact, one of its purposes might well be to help us learn they actually can be a graced opportunity. Granted, it is important not to minimize that that such periods can be very difficult, but the grace of the Feast of the Ascension also can be seen as helping us embrace “Liminal States” as an experience that can be filled with possibility and eventually lead us to a new reality filled with promise.
The “Liminal State” can be a time for intense instruction and learning as we let go of what was and what is familiar. In this void, there is a need to grasp new information; so we hunger to learn and seek new knowledge. In the Acts of the Apostles Jesus spends time “giving instructions through the Holy Spirit” and “speaking about the Kingdom of God.”
The “Liminal State” also is receptive to new ideas. As the familiar fades away, one realizes that what has been need not always be. One envisions the possibility that there are other options available, perhaps even things that previously were inconceivable. In the Book of Acts and the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the Apostles are moved to consider a mission that they had never considered before – taking the Gospel beyond the confines of Palestine to all nations and the ends of the earth.
The “Liminal State” also can generate new commitment. In the process of letting go of something well-worn and sometimes taken for granted, the promise of embracing something new can instill enthusiasm and a sense of re-dedication to a mission or call. In the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus promises a new power from on high and a new authority.
And, so the time of the Ascension was a vital and vibrant period for the Apostles and the early Church. It helped the Church assimilate new realities that would become critical in carrying on the mission of Jesus. Such realities might even never had been learned or accepted without that experience. It was necessary to the experience of transition and transformation.
Given the critical role that the time of the Ascension played in the transformation of the Church, it would seem that the commemoration of this feast during this present time of history could be a significant event in the manner we address the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people these days speak of the “new normal” which lies ahead of us and the “emergence of a new world,” which will be the consequence of our experience of the virus. Uniting ourselves in a special way with the lessons our holy ancestors received in the Ascension could be a blessing for us as we seek to embrace the Coronavirus Crisis not simply as a tragic catastrophe but a “Liminal State” which even holds the possibility of growth toward a better future. This should be a time for us for intense prayer for the grace which such a period of transition can provide, pleading with intercessions for the intense learning, the receptivity to new ideas and the generation of new commitment which is needed to cross a Limina, a new threshold. Ultimately, sincere devotion to the lessons of the Ascension can even hold for us the promise which was fulfilled for the early Church, the outpouring of a new Spirit, a Holy One, which will renew the face of the earth.