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Waiting in the Cenacle

When they had entered [Jerusalem], 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.
(Acts 1:13-14 RSV)

What were Mary and the friends of Jesus doing in the Upper Room – in the Cenacle – after Jesus had ascended into heaven? We are told that they were praying.

“Is that all?” we ask.Pentecost - Berry

Most of the other New Testament mysteries are mysteries of presence and of the breaking forth of something obviously new into the world. But here nothing much seems to be happening. Perhaps this is one reason the time in the Upper Room is so hard to deal with as an event – or a non-event – and why it seems easier to skip over this mystery and move on to Pentecost.

But I propose to you that something absolutely essential for the church and the world was happening there in the Upper Room. Yes, this is an in-between time: in between the great mysteries of Cross/Resurrection/Ascension and Pentecost. But all gestation periods are in-between times.

A new Annunciation

Let’s go back for a moment to the Annunciation scene in the first chapter of Luke. It took me a while to notice the similarities between Gabriel’s proclamation to Mary and the words of Jesus to his disciples just before the Ascension. Remember that the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts were both written by Luke. Luke is a careful writer, so it is doubtful that the resemblance is accidental.

In Luke 1, in response to Mary’s question, the angel says, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you…”

In Acts 1, in response to the questioning of the apostles, Jesus says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…”

This verbal resemblance is important, because it indicates that what is happening is similar in both cases.

But there is a difference.

One of the major distinctions between the two annunciations is this: at the time of the Annunciation, the word was spoken to one person, Mary; but the promise on the day of Ascension is made, not to one person, but to the assembled disciples of Jesus. This time, the Spirit is promised to the community. In both events, the power of the Holy Spirit will bring about an embodying, an enfleshing: in the first case, the conception of the infant Jesus; in the second case, the conception of the infant church, the mystical Body of Christ.Pentecost (14th century)

Since this is so, the womb is to be prepared this time, not in the body of Mary, but in the body of the community. Gathered there, supporting each other, forgiving each other, a hollowing-out is taking place, an emptying, a making room or preparing a womb for the Spirit of Jesus. (Notice the two portrayals of Pentecost shown in this post, from the 15th and 14th centuries, in both of which Mary, representing the church, is depicted as pregnant.)

The presence of Mary the Mother of Jesus is indispensable to this little community, for Mary is the only person in the world who already knows what it is like to be emptied in such a way as to receive the mystery of Christ within herself.

A time when nothing is happening.

The group gathered in the Upper Room needs this time of prayer where nothing seems to be taking place. The friends and family of Jesus no longer have his physical presence, and what they are left with, for better or for worse, is each other. They must receive the mystery of Christ into themselves; they must be prepared to incarnate the presence of Christ for each other and for the world. Because of this wondrous process, Paul can later say:

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27).

Isn’t this our own call when we pray? We wait — if not in an actual Cenacle, in the Cenacle of our hearts — and often we feel as if little or nothing is being accomplished. However, along with the whole communion of saints, those still living and those who have gone before us, we wait and pray, allowing God to pour out love on us (whether or not we are aware of it) and to begin transforming us into the loving presence of Christ for each other and for the whole world.


Pentecost scenes: 1. from Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry; 2. from l’Eglise de Palau de Cerdagne

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