REFLECTIONS ON THE FEAST OF THE CENACLE
[The following was presented as a talk at Saint Augustine Parish in Gainesville, Florida. For an abbreviated version, see "Waiting in the Cenacle."]
After the Ascension and before Pentecost, there is another mystery worthy of honor, but which most of us just pass right over on our way to Pentecost. The Sisters of the Cenacle, however, don’t let it go unnoticed, because it is called the Mystery of the Cenacle and is celebrated as the Feast of Our Lady of the Cenacle. But it is not a mystery just for the Cenacle Sisters. It is a mystery important for the whole Church, because it prepares for the birth of the Church at Pentecost. The feast day of Our Lady of the Cenacle — for Mary was there — is the Saturday after Ascension Thursday.
We read in the book of Acts:
Then they 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. (Acts 1:12-14 RSV)
The word Cenacle comes from the Latin word coenaculum, which means the supper room (or in this case the upper room). Now tradition tells us that this cenacle was the same place where Jesus celebrated the last supper with his apostles and the same place where his friends and family were gathered when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon them at Pentecost.
But what about this in-between feast? What were Mary and the friends of Jesus doing in the Upper Room – in the Cenacle – after Jesus had ascended into heaven? Well, we are told that they were praying.
“Is that all?” we ask.
Most of the other New Testament mysteries are mysteries of presence and of the breaking forth of something obviously new into the world. That is certainly true about the Last Supper and Pentecost. But the mystery of the little group gathered in the Upper Room is, first, an in-between mystery, sandwiched in between more spectacular ones of which it is a part. And secondly it is a mystery of absence: Jesus has departed from them. He has been taken into heaven. And third, it is a mystery where nothing much seems to be happening. What were Jesus’ friends and family doing in the Cenacle? Why were they gathered there?
As yet they had no ministry, strictly speaking. It is possible that Peter went out to fish each day and that others went out to work or carried out tasks in the Cenacle itself. After all, the necessities of life didn’t stop, no matter how timid and uncertain the group was feeling after Jesus had left them. But as far as we know, helping with the work was not the purpose of their being together. They may have sat around telling stories about Jesus, remembering. But the only thing we know for sure is that they were praying — a useless activity in the pragmatic eyes of the world.
Some of you know that for about three years I have been carrying on an e-mail correspondence with an ex-christian — a former preacher who is now preaching fervently against faith. One of his latest missives claims that there is no evidence for anything spiritual at all. And as for prayer, he says, “Believers may talk with their god all they want, but he never responds to them. And if they say he does, that constitutes a form of mental illness.”
And answered prayer is just an illusion, he writes. (He has no concept of prayer as relationship or communion, just as asking for things — and not getting them.) Now most of his rants against religion I ignore, but occasionally I do feel I have to respond. So I wrote back,
If you write off all communication with God as mental illness, you are doing that by faith alone [i.e., his own materialistic faith]. There is absolutely no evidence that the majority of religious people are mentally ill. Yes, some are, as are some non-religious people.
But we Christians can also buy into the idea that prayer is a wasteful way to spend time. It’s seems better to be accomplishing something. The sense of absence and lack of purposeful activity in the Upper Room after the Ascension may be one reason this time when Jesus’ friends and family are gathered in prayer 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.
In the New Testament we have three times when the Body of Christ is prepared and given. The first, of course, is the Annunciation and Mary’s time of waiting leading up to the birth of Jesus.
The second takes us to the Cenacle for the Last Supper, followed by the whole of the Paschal mystery of dying and rising — and then the mystery continued and lived after the Resurrection when the followers of Jesus met for what they called the “breaking of the bread” and what we call Eucharist.
The third is this period of waiting between the Ascension and Pentecost; and once again, we will see that, even in the post-Ascension absence, it is the Body of Christ that we are talking about here — even when Jesus seems to be absent to those who love him…
…Because what we have in the first chapter of Acts is 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, right before the Ascension, in response to the questioning of the apostles, Jesus says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…”
In both events we hear that the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and there will be an experience of power. 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 first 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 gathered apostles 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.
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 — and they did have some forgiving to do, didn’t they, for the miserable and cowardly way most of them had acted after Jesus was arrested — assembled in the Cenacle, a hollowing-out is taking place, an emptying, a making room or preparing a womb for the Spirit of Jesus.
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.
So is this 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).
It would seem that not even Pentecost can happen without this strange mystery of waiting and being with and for each other in the Upper Room. It is only when the presence of Christ is growing (you notice that I do not say “finished”) and nurtured in this little community that they can be entrusted with ministry, because only then can they be the presence of Christ in the world.
Isn’t our own call similar to theirs? These first Christians needed each other. They couldn’t go it alone as Christians, and neither can we. Like them, 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 (including the motley crew of sinners that we are here tonight) and those who have gone before us, we wait and pray, allowing God to pour out love on us (whether or not we are even aware of it) and to begin transforming us into the loving presence of Christ for each other and for the whole world.