Thursday, May 29, 2014

Glory of Love: The 7th Sunday of Easter

In the provinces of Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, and Omaha, Ascension Day is observed on it's proper day, and this Sunday is observed as the Seventh Sunday of Easter.  It's a shame that so much of the country will not have a chance to meditate on these Scriptures, but perhaps even those of us living in areas where the Seventh Sunday is not celebrated can benefit by bringing these Readings to our prayer.

(If you're looking for the Ascension commentary, it's below.)

Holy Mother Church offers as an intriguing theme in these Readings: the paradoxical relationship between glory and suffering.  We find these two motifs expressed particularly in the Second Reading and Gospel.


1. Our First Reading is Acts 1:12-1:

After Jesus had been taken up to heaven the apostles

returned to Jerusalem

from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem,

a sabbath day’s journey away.





When they entered the city

they went to the upper room where they were staying,

Peter and John and James and Andrew,

Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew,

James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot,

and Judas son of James.

All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer,

together with some women,

and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.
The Ascension has past, and the Church is now in a period of waiting, a time of excited anticipation.  Jesus, in fact, had actually commanded the Church to wait in Jerusalem until they "receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you" (Acts 1:8).

It is interesting to contemplate this command to "wait" (Acts 1:4).  First, it raises many questions: why wait at all?  Why didn't Jesus just dispense the power of the Holy Spirit immediately at the Ascension? We can't answer that with certainty.  But we do know that waiting is an important part of the spiritual life.  Sometimes, it is God's highest and best will for us, at a particular time, that we just wait.  We think to the many times of waiting throughout salvation history: Jacob waiting seven years to marry his beloved Rachel. Moses waiting forty years in Midian before God showed himself in the burning bush. The holy remnant of Israel waiting 490 years (Dan 9:25-27) for the coming of the Messiah.  Waiting is often an important part of our salvation, and God gives us enforced waiting in various ways and at various times.  The Sabbath Day, for example, was a kind of enforced wait: a period of "inactivity" in which God's people were to cease their labors in order to let God work in them. 

Waiting is not necessarily inaction.  Since we are creatures in time, waiting creates the possibility of gradual change in our lives.  In our First Reading, we see the Apostles, the Blessed Mother, and the relatives of Jesus in a kind of "active waiting," a waiting devoted to prayer, a preparation of their hearts for a new initiative of God.

St. Josemaria has taught me a great deal about waiting.  During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), St. Josemaria underwent long periods of enforced waiting, when he was stuck in various refuges—a hospital, home, embassy—unable to venture out because of the death squads that were hunting down priests.  St. Josemaria and the young men who were with them devoted themselves, during this time, to intense prayer, as well as to learning languages and other education that would help them spread the Gospel literally to the whole world once they were able to gain their freedom.

The entire Church is still in a period of waiting, as we await the return of Christ at the end of time.  In a sense, "to be devoted to prayer ... with Mary the Mother of Jesus" is the "standing order" for the Church at all times and everywhere, until Jesus returns.

We are in the middle of the "Decade of the Holy Spirit," the ten days between Ascension and Pentecost.  This is an ideal time to devote ourselves more to prayer, especially prayer to the Holy Spirit, perhaps by taking up one of the many novenas or ten-day devotions that have been written for this time in the Church year.



2. Responsorial Psalm: Ps 27:1, 4, 7-8:

R/ (13) I believe that I shall see the good things of the Lord in the land of the living.


The LORD is my light and my salvation;

whom should I fear?

The LORD is my life’s refuge;

of whom should I be afraid?

R/ I believe that I shall see the good things of the Lord in the land of the living.


One thing I ask of the LORD;

this I seek:

To dwell in the house of the LORD

all the days of my life,

That I may gaze on the loveliness of the LORD

and contemplate his temple.

R/ I believe that I shall see the good things of the Lord in the land of the living.


Hear, O Lord, the sound of my call;

have pity on me, and answer me.

Of you my heart speaks; you my glance seeks.

R/ I believe that I shall see the good things of the Lord in the land of the living.
Our Responsorial is a beautiful Psalm of consolation and seeking the Lord.  

Many have memorized the first few verses of Psalm 27: "The Lord is my light and my salvation: whom shall I fear?" and recite them during times of stress or danger.  

The psalm has at least two themes: seeking the Lord, and waiting for him.  We see the Apostles and Mary doing both things in the First Reading.  The last verse of the Psalm is not recited liturgically, but it is significant to the theme for this Sunday: "Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; yea, wait for the LORD!"  So the early Church did between Ascension and Pentecost.

There is also the theme of seeking: the psalmist "seeks" the Lord, and describes the Lord as "light, salvation, stronghold, loveliness, beauty, shelter, goodness."  These are attributes of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is the goodness, the light, the salvation, the beauty of God.  He makes us into the Temple of the Lord, the Body of Christ.  The Apostles and Mary gathered in the Upper Room were the nucleus of the Church, the Temple of Living Stones, seeking the "light and salvation" of God even though surrounded by a hostile environment and the persecution of the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:1-31).


3. Our Second Reading is 1 Pt 4:13-16:

Beloved:

Rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ,

so that when his glory is revealed

you may also rejoice exultantly.

If you are insulted for the name of Christ, blessed are you,

for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.

But let no one among you be made to suffer

as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as an intriguer.

But whoever is made to suffer as a Christian should not be ashamed

but glorify God because of the name.
 The Second Reading explicitly introduces the theme of suffering.  The early Church will soon suffer (Acts 4).  St. Peter emphasizes one of the paradoxes of the Gospel life, a paradox that goes back to the preaching of Christ himself and the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." St. Peter says "The Spirit of glory and of God"—that is, the Holy Spirit—"rests upon you" when you are "insulted for the name of Christ."  Why is suffering an experience of "glory"?  Perhaps in part because suffering is the proof of the genuineness of love.  Without suffering, love may be disguised self-interest.  Through suffering, our love for Christ becomes apparent, and love—not power—is the glory of God.  

St. Peter distinguishes suffering for the sake of Christ from the sufferings we bring upon ourselves by our sin: "let no one among you ... suffer as a murderer, thief, evildoer, intriguer."  If Christians violate the moral law, there are natural negative consequences.  There is no merit in this, and much of the early stage of Christian discipleship involves casting off the sinful habits that have been making our life miserable.  In fact, some converts who experience the natural benefits of living a life of virtue sometimes fall into the trap of looking upon the Gospel as a means to a better life in this world.  When persecution comes, they are in danger of falling away, like the seed planted on rocky soil.


4. Gospel: John 17:1-11a

Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and said,

“Father, the hour has come.

Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you,

just as you gave him authority over all people,

so that your son may give eternal life to all you gave him.

Now this is eternal life,

that they should know you, the only true God,

and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ.

I glorified you on earth

by accomplishing the work that you gave me to do.

Now glorify me, Father, with you,

with the glory that I had with you before the world began.



“I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world.

They belonged to you, and you gave them to me,

and they have kept your word.

Now they know that everything you gave me is from you,

because the words you gave to me I have given to them,

and they accepted them and truly understood that I came from you,

and they have believed that you sent me.

I pray for them.

I do not pray for the world but for the ones you have given me,

because they are yours, and everything of mine is yours

and everything of yours is mine,

and I have been glorified in them.

And now I will no longer be in the world,

but they are in the world, while I am coming to you.”
The Gospel passage comes from the end of the Last Supper Discourse, John 13-17, the longest extended discourse by Jesus in the Gospels.  The Last Supper Discourse has provided most of the Gospel texts for the entire Easter Season, because during this season the Church views herself as awaiting the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  Most of Jesus' teachings on the Holy Spirit were delivered to the Apostles in the Upper Room during the Last Supper.  

On this Seventh Sunday, we reach the climactic end of the Last Supper Discourse: John 17, known as "The High Priestly Prayer," because many priestly themes run through the chapter, as well as allusions to the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) liturgy, which was performed primarily by the High Priest.  These are the last words of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of John before his Passion begins.

Jesus begins his prayer by saying to his Father, "the hour has come ...."  Near the beginning of the Gospel of John, Jesus had told his Mother, "My hour has not yet come ...." (John 2:4). The contrast should not be missed.  In John 2, his Mother had requested him to provide wine, but his "hour had not yet come"; by implication, now the hour has come for Jesus to "provide wine"—and that "wine" will be his own blood, poured out for the forgiveness of sins and the life of the world.  Jesus is about to go to the cross.

Knowing he is about to die on the cross, Jesus prays "Give glory to your Son ... Glorify me, Father, with the glory that I had with you before the world began."  Did God answer his prayer?  Ironically, what follows next in the Gospel of John is the Passion and Crucifixion.  Is that how the Father answers the Son's request for "glory"? 

Oddly, we see this same juxtaposition of "glory" and "suffering" in an earlier passage of Scripture: the prophet Isaiah's oracle of the Suffering Servant: 
Is. 52:13   Behold, my servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.  14 As many were astonished at him — his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the sons of men ...

Some may suggest that the “glory” for which Jesus prays in John 17 is granted to Jesus at the Resurrection or the Ascension, and surely those were moments of glorification.  However, I do not think that we can ignore the fact that Jesus’ request for the Father to “glorify” him is met immediately by the Passion and Cross.  This is the same paradoxical juxtaposition of glory and suffering that we saw in our Second Reading.
Why is it that the suffering of Christ should be his “glory”?  Because at the cross Jesus reveals that God is not a “bully God,” not a God who will force us to worship him by brute strength, but rather a God who woos us to himself with acts of self-sacrificial love.  Intuitively, we recognize that such a God is more admirable, more lovable, more worthy of worship, than a god who manifests himself only through power. 
In the following verses, Jesus speaks of “revealing the name” to the Apostles.  This is an allusion to the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) liturgy, at the end of which the High Priest would appear before the people to pronounce the priestly blessing of Numbers 6.  This was the only time in Second Temple Judaism that the divine name YHWH was actually pronounced.
So we see that Jesus claims to have fulfilled the High Priestly duty of “manifesting the name.”  What does this mean?  Many things, to be sure, but one truth we may focus on is the “name” of a person in Hebrew culture represented their essence.  Therefore, the revelation of the “name” is the revelation of the essence of God.  Through his teaching and his actions Jesus has revealed the true nature of God to the Apostles, showing them that God is, if we may say it, a humble God, a God who empties himself and comes down in the form of a servant, who washes his follower’s feet, who suffers and dies on a cross.  All of this in no way shows that God is powerless or impotent: quite to the contrary.  God is so powerful, he can win by any means, even through weakness, pain, suffering, and other things the world holds as contemptible.  In this way, Jesus has revealed to the Apostles the divine nature, the “Name.”  This is extremely challenging, because we become like what we worship.  Are we ready to worship a God like this?
Jesus goes on to pray for the Apostles, and to assert that he “has been glorified in them.”  But the glory of Christ is the cross.  So the cross must be formed in every disciple: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.” 
We remain as Christ’s Body and presence in the world.  During this week in anticipation of Pentecost, let’s pray for a greater filling of the Holy Spirit, that we may understand the true “Name” of God, and the paradox that suffering and glory are the same: one act of love.






3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great. Thanks for sharing.

Thanks,
Thanh

Joe K said...

Dr. Bergsma, Thanks for the great weekly commentary on the readings. Living in Omaha I was glad you see your study on this weekend's non Ascension readings. A quick question for yourself or any of the other readers which is brought to mind by Sunday's first reading. Do we know for sure that Mary was in the upper room at Pentecost? It does't seem definitive from reading Scripture, which leads me to think that there must be some tradition that tells us this. I have seen it depicted in Sacred art in many places but does anyone know about a written source from tradition? The most definitive I have found is from Pope Emeritus Benedict in 2012 on 27 May.

John Bergsma said...

Dear Joe: Great question. I do not know of an early Christian source on this. Acts 2:1 says they were "all together in one place," and the parallels with Acts 1:12-14 suggests that "all" includes the persons mentioned in 1:12-14, i.e. including Mary. But it is not definitive. Obviously, it is the common tradition that she was present, but I do not know the earliest explicit attestation of this tradition.