01 May 2020 - by Stephen Pickard
In the Christian calendar the period from Easter to Pentecost covers 50 days. This accords with the traditional time from the spring festival of Passover to the offering of the first fruits of the barley (barley being the first fruit to ripen and be harvested). Among those gathered for the barley festival in Jerusalem 50 days after that first Easter were the disciples of Jesus and friends. As devout Jews they, with visitors from many places, had gathered for this important festival of thanksgiving for God’s provision.
The Acts of the Apostles records that the promised outpouring of the Spirit of God took everyone by surprise. Pilgrims from other countries and languages understood common Galileans speaking to them. Some thought those speaking in strange tongues were simply drunk (Greek: methuo from which we have methylated spirits). One of the leaders, Peter reminded the throng that it was only 9am in the morning and that the speakers were not drunk (Greek: amethuo i.e. not methylated). Interestingly this word is familiar to us as the amethyst stone; meaning stone of wisdom, of being sober minded.
However, the weeks leading up to Pentecost had been significant. Why? In this time, a hope had been born that something was about to happen, although exactly what eluded them. From that first Easter Sunday to Christ’s Ascension over a period of 40 days the risen Christ had appeared on numerous occasions. It became known in the Church as the Great Forty days. The joy of believing had become a living reality. The disciples were caught up in something very big!
The earliest recorded appearances of the risen Christ occur in altogether ordinary circumstances; you could easily miss the moment if you didn’t have your wits about you, or more importantly, if you had not been moved by the Spirit to recognise the visitation of God.
Two of my favourite appearances come immediately to mind. First, Jesus cooking fish on the beach as recorded in John’s Gospel. His disciples eventually come ashore and are struck dumb unable to believe their eyes. Jesus says ‘come and have breakfast’. No fanfare, no glitz; not in the big city Jerusalem but down by the lake where no one will notice.
The other appearance that I have an abiding love for, is the Emmaus Road. Two dejected disciples trudging home; downcast and in grief because they had pinned their hopes on Jesus to deliver them and he had been crucified. A stranger comes alongside; engages them in conversation and is invited to stay. As the bread is broken at evening meal, the guest vanishes. In that same moment, the scales fall from their inner eyes and they now see with Easter eyes. Their hearts had been ‘strangely warmed’ (as John Wesley might have stated), or more accurately their ‘hearts had burned within them.’
The great forty days are considered great not because they received top media coverage, or because something spectacular occurred in the public space, or because the manner of God’s appearing was outrageous and demanded recognition. Rather the forty days are great because the same God who came to a stable among smelly animals and the subclass of society (shepherds), also appeared again at the beach for a morning breakfast and again on a road with some despairing travellers. The days were great because they revealed one who did not cling to equality with God but humbled himself and pitched his tent in the ordinary things that bind human beings together: conversation, food, homes, outdoor gatherings; as well as the disappointments, griefs and suffering of life. The great forty days are great because it was a time when heaven erupted in the ordinary.
Yet in 2020 Christians around the globe celebrate the Great Forty days at a not so great time. As I write over two and half million people that we know of world-wide have been infected with a dangerous and deadly virus. And the death rate will only continue to climb as the virus takes hold in Africa and elsewhere. A global pandemic has paralysed countries and people’s lives, and caused great grief and hardship for many especially the poorest. There are no glib words that will make it all better or magically make it all go away. Our mortality rises before us and we are reminded of our deep need for connection and companionship. The ordinary things of life become taxing on our spirits and we have to be inventive to try to cope. And many can’t or are simply unable by dent of circumstances. It’s not a great time.
Yet in the midst of all this there are some remarkable acts of compassion and self-sacrifice. This is evidence of a spirit of love and care for one another. It can appear in the most surprising places, often where there is pain and despair. Emmaus road stories being repeated in real time; people isolated in their own ‘Upper Rooms’ of fear and anxiety being cared for. As one person described it to me: we are seeing an outpouring of compassion. This has been a mark of the Church over the centuries in response to pandemics, plagues and suffering of many different kinds. Its roots are to be found in the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. And it is just such outpourings of compassion that inject into the not so great times of the present something surprising even great. The season of Pentecost is a time to see the world through Easter eyes; to join with the risen Christ for the common good; to work for the well-being of others and the life of the planet. As we do we bear witness to the One who journeys with us in the great and not so great times.