Year A – Ascension Sunday

On Liminal Space

(Acts 1:1-11; Eph.1:17-23; Mt.28:16-20)

Last week I spoke about our comfort zones, where we often erect invisible barriers to stop ourselves from doing new things.  Why do we do that?  It’s usually because of fear.

But here’s the point: if we want to live life to the full, then we must be open to new things.   

When we step outside our comfort zones, what do we enter?  We go through a kind of doorway or threshold into something new. We step into a new beginning.

We enter into liminal space. 

Liminal space is an in-between place.  It occurs when we leave our comfort zones and we find a gap between what we’ve just left behind and where we’re heading. Dawn and dusk are both liminal spaces; they sit between night and day.  We know what’s behind us, but we don’t quite know what’s ahead. 

The word ‘liminal’ comes from the Latin ‘limen’, which means ‘threshold’ or a beginning place. [i]

When you’re off to a new school, or when you get married, move house, find a new job or retire, you’re entering into liminal space.  When you’re new to your parish, you’re in liminal space. You’re in-between because the future is unclear.

Liminal spaces involve waiting and being patient. This makes some people nervous.  They’d rather go back to where they used to be.  But liminal spaces are the places where we grow and develop and change.

Just before Jesus says goodbye to his disciples and ascends into heaven, he tells them to ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’ (Mt.28:19). 

This frightens them, for it’s unfamiliar territory.  It’s liminal space.  But Jesus tells them to wait, to be patient and to stay in Jerusalem (Lk.24:49).  They do wait, of course.  But they’re so scared that they lock themselves in the Upper Room (Jn.20:19).  Jesus knows this.  That’s why he promises to send his Holy Spirit to help them (Jn.14:16).

Now, Jesus’ Ascension into heaven marks a new beginning for him.  With his earthly mission over, he has a new ministry in heaven.  Because he is no longer confined by space and time, he becomes available to everyone, everywhere, all at once, including through the sacraments.

But for Jesus, liminal space is not an issue.  That’s because he’s united with the Holy Spirit in the Trinity.  So, he starts his new mission right away. 

For the disciples, Jesus’ Ascension is also a new beginning.  But they don’t know how to start.  They’re trapped in no-man’s land.  It’s only when they receive Jesus’ Holy Spirit at Pentecost that they receive the courage they need to go out and baptise all nations.

The Franciscan theologian Richard Rohr describes liminal space as the place ‘where we’re betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown … Our old world is left behind, but we’re not yet sure of the new existence’.

‘However,’ he says, ‘that’s a good space where genuine newness can begin … This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed’ to us.

He describes this threshold as ‘God’s waiting room’, where we’re taught openness and patience.  He says ‘these liminal spaces are everywhere and they’re inevitable, as each one ushers in a new chapter of our lives and holds varying degrees of disruption’. [ii]

So, what about you?  Are you facing a new beginning?  Are you caught in liminal space?  And does it scare you?

We can learn from Jesus’ disciples.  They waited, and the Holy Spirit came to release them from being ‘in-between’.  The Spirit gave them the power they needed to begin again.

According to Bishop Robert Barron, the Holy Spirit is the fuel of the Church. It’s the energy and the life-force of the body of Christ, and the only way to get that Holy Spirit is by asking for it.

Jesus promised that his Father would never refuse anyone who asks for the Holy Spirit (Lk.11:13).  ‘So ask!’ he says, ‘and ask again!’

Robert Barron also says that every liturgy is a begging for the Holy Spirit. He quotes Fr. Ted Hesburgh of Notre Dame University, who once said that the one prayer that’s always appropriate, whether you’re experiencing success or failure, whether you’re confident or afraid, whether you’re young or old, is, ‘Come, Holy Spirit’. 

‘This,’ he says, ‘is the fundamental prayer of the church’. [iii]

So, if you’re out of your comfort zone.  If you’re struggling in some liminal space somewhere – between what used to be and what isn’t here just yet – then ask the Holy Spirit for his help.  Pray ‘Come, Holy Spirit!’ 

Ask Our Father to send his Holy Spirit to help you. 

That’s how to begin again.

[i] Richard Rohr, ‘Yes, And …’ Franciscan Media, Cincinatti OH. 2013:175.