While the world around us has closed off Easter with its usual eggs and bunnies, the liturgy asks us to continue to celebrate, reflecting on the Risen Christ and his message to his disciples. The Gospel of John will be featured throughout this season until the feast of the Ascension.
This is one of the summaries of the actions and teachings of the apostles that Luke uses to describe the early history of the Christian Community in Jerusalem. He makes it clear that the first ministers of the Church carried on the activities that Jesus showed in his life, with stress on the healings. Being healed by just the shadow of the apostles passing by is reminiscent of some healings of Jesus in the gospels, like the woman who touched his cloak (Luke 8:43-48), and several healings done at a distance, like the son of the centurion (Luke 7:1-10). There is already at this early date reverence shown for the apostles, shown in the way people hesitate to come too close to them. Peter is clearly the leader.
Psalm 117/118:2-4, 22-27
This is a psalm of thanksgiving and the lines we read fit into the Easter season. The rejected stone becoming the foundation of the building is quoted by Jesus in the first three gospels after the parable of the wicked tenants, who were rejected after killing the owner’s son (Matthew 21:42, Mark 12:10, Luke 20:17). The early Christians used the verse to understand Christ’s rejection by the people, which was followed by vindication in his resurrection. Similarly, the ‘day made by the Lord’ was seen as Easter in the liturgy. Our mass acclamation has used a different translation of the words ‘Blessed in the name of the Lord is he who comes.’ This appears also in Matthew 21:9, as the words of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, slightly varied in Luke and Mark.
Apocalypse/Revelation 1:9-13, 17-19
‘Apocalypse’ comes from the Greek word meaning ‘revelation’ – and both titles used in different translations for the last book in the New Testament. ‘Apocalyptic’ is a literary form that was popular in the few centuries before and after Christ, one which became unfamiliar in later times. It is written as if a ‘revelation’ of events, but does not usually mean the writer had the visions described; rather they were a conventional scene setting. Often it seems to refer to the future as if it was a prophecy of coming events, but usually the message was for the time in which it was written. ‘Revelation’ is the only book written in the apocalyptic style in the New Testament. (Daniel is the Old Testament was also partly in this form.) Because the imagery is often bizarre and symbolic, apocalyptic books are not easy to read without a guide, and it can mislead those who take it as a prophecy of coming times. Some Christians, probably more in the US than the UK, see it as predicting the end of the world in our time and there are other odd interpretations. The Catholic Church takes a longer range view and is comfortable with symbolism. Despite interpretation problems, the book has passages of poetic beauty and messages of hope and assurance, and this we find in today’s reading.
This mass selection has edited out some extravagant imagery in this opening. It clearly fits well into the Easter season. The author identifies himself simply as ‘John’ and we know no more than that. The book is written in some of the worst Greek of the New Testament, far from the smooth style of the writer of the gospel of John. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary suggests its is most likely an unknown disciple, one with the kind of prophetic charism we see in Acts and the letters of St Paul. Patmos was an island of exile, and he was probably sent there because his preaching was seen as an attack on the religion of the Roman Empire.
Seven lampstands: seven is a symbolic number of wholeness, used frequently in Revelation, and these lights will later be identified as seven churches (names omitted in today’s selection) to which the message is to be sent. Here they form a setting for the vision of the Risen Christ, and may symbolize Jesus as a presence among all church communities. Trumpets figure frequently in apocalyptic as a dramatic call, perhaps because they were used in the Temple. ‘One like a son of man’ could mean just a human person, in contrast to the animal type of visions described later in the book. It also recalls the words of Daniel 7 where one ‘like a son of man’ is given power and dominion. But for Christians, it is the title Jesus used most often for himself, and the rest of the text makes clear this is Christ in his risen body. The ‘first and the last’ indicate Christ as the Son of God present ‘in the beginning’ (as stated in the opening of the Gospel of John). And the last as the one in whom all creation is taken up at the end of time. (Compare the Letter to the Colossians, 1:15-20.)
This is probably the original conclusion to John’s gospel as there are clear signs, like the last words of our reading, that the last chapter in our Bibles is a later addition. As a conclusion, it brings us in as the heirs to the power of the resurrection and leaves us with the challenge of carrying on Jesus’ message of love and salvation.
The action takes place on two ‘first days of the week’, the ‘first day’ being our Sunday and not the Jewish Sabbath, and suggests that quite early Christians began to assemble on the day of the week that Christ rose. John does not explain how Jesus ‘came and stood’, just hinting that it was not in the normal bodily way. Some interpret it as his risen body being able to penetrate solid walls, others that he simply appeared there before them, as he seemed to in other accounts of the resurrection. This famous story of Thomas has given our culture the phrase ‘a doubting Thomas’, but the evangelist is not so much stressing his doubt as emphasizing that all those who were not present in the actual time of Jesus’ resurrection are nevertheless able by belief to live with awareness of his presence among us. We are not told whether Thomas actually tried to touch the wounds of Jesus, but it seems he spoke his word of belief when he saw the Risen Christ face to face, and knew his challenge had been heard. Bruce Vawter C.M. notes the irony of the doubter becoming the one who fully expresses the post-resurrection faith of the Christian community of Jesus as true God. Thomas’ response, ‘My Lord and my God’ translates the Old Testament name for God, Yahweh Elohim.
‘Peace to you’ was a customary Jewish greeting, but here it is stressed by the repetition. Raymond E. Brown in his commentary says Jesus is not just wishing them peace, but actually conferring it on them. It is the profound peace that is found only through Christ. Jesus then commissions his disciples to carry on his work, especially forgiveness. Catholics have seen this text as the basis of the sacrament of reconciliation.
The last words remind us that all which is written in the Gospels of the life and teaching of Jesus which – while less than he actually did and said in his lifetime – is enough for us to believe that he is the living God and to find our life in Christ.