On the last of the fifty days of Easter we celebrate Pentecost, the day God sent the Holy Spirit, appearing in tongues of fire over the disciples in Jerusalem. In Why Resurrection? Part V, I discussed how, in the eucharist, the power of the Holy Spirit transcends time and space to incorporate all people of all times and all places into the Body of Christ. That Spirit that was given at Pentecost over 2,000 years ago participates throughout salvation history from Creation down to our own day. See Genesis 1:2. Of the many manifestations of the Spirit in the Hebrew Bible, two moments help us to understand what the disciples experienced on Pentecost, and what God continues to offer us today.
Now it was on the third day, when it was daybreak: There were thunder-sounds, and lightning, a heavy cloud on the mountain and an exceedingly strong shofar sound [blast of a horn]. . . . Moses brought the people out toward God, from the camp, and they stationed themselves beneath the mountain. Now Mount Sinai smoked all over, since the Lord had come down upon it in fire . . . . [T]he Glory of the Lord took up dwelling on Mount Sinai. . . . [Exodus 19:16-18 (Schocken Bible)]
You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me. So-now, if you will hearken, yes, hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be to me a special-treasure from among all peoples. [Exodus 19:4-5 (Schocken Bible)]
So Moses came and recounted to the people all the words of the Lord . . . And all the people answered in one voice, and said: All the words that the Lord has spoken, we will do. . . . All that the Lord has spoken, we will do and we will hearken!” And the sight of the Glory of the Lord (was) like a consuming fire on top of the mountain in the eyes of the Children of Israel. [Exodus 24:3, 7-8,17 (Schocken Bible)]
Moses stayed on the mountain for forty more days, and the Hebrew people went back to their tents. How might they have felt? Dazzled, elated, dumfounded? Perhaps they wondered, “What now?” They had seen God in the fire and survived. God had made a covenant with them, ratified in blood. It was terrifying, miraculous . . . and it was over. After Sinai, how could God remain with them, and they with God?
Luke’s gospel tells us that on the third day after Jesus’ death, the women who had gone to the tomb returned with the astonishing news that Jesus was risen. That same day two disciples, wanting to flee the tense situation in Jerusalem, set out on the road to Emmaus. Later, the other disciples were huddled in a room in Jerusalem when these two burst in to announce that they had seen the risen Lord. “Yes, it is true,” the apostles answered, “The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” Yet when Jesus himself stood among them saying, “Peace be with you!”, they thought they were seeing a ghost. Assuring them that he was no ghost, but a man, Jesus said,
And now I am sending down to you what the Father has promised. Stay in the city then, until you are clothed with the power from on high.
He took them out to Bethany, and as he blessed them he withdrew and was carried up to heaven. The disciples walked back to Jerusalem full of joy. And then–what? Jesus’ parting words did not leave them much to go on. They had walked with the living revelation of God on earth. He had announced to them a new covenant, ratified in his blood. It was terrifying, miraculous . . . and it was over. See Luke 24.
At the Last Supper, Jesus had instructed them, “Remain in me, as I remain in you. Remain in my love.” [emphasis added] [John 15:4, 9 (Interlinear)] After the Ascension, the disciples might well have wondered how they could remain: how could they love Jesus when he was no longer there?
As we have seen, the problem how to remain with God after the moment of revelation is over was not a new one for the Jews. In her book, The Particulars of Rapture; Reflections on Exodus, (Doubleday, New York, 2001), author and midrashist Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg writes about the Hebrew peoples’ problem, after Sinai, how to stay in relationship with God. God’s solution was the Tabernacle, called Mishkan in Hebrew, built so that God might dwell in their midst. In Pentecost, Part II we will look Dr. Zornberg’s analysis, an analysis that provides clues not only about how God solved the problem of remaining after Jesus’ ascension, but also our dilemma how to remain, how to stay in relationship with God and witness God’s continuing revelation in our own time.