On this Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost, the liturgy reflects that ‘in-between time’ with reminders of Christ’s going the Father and the coming of the Holy Spirit, and offering various reflections of how Christians are to live in waiting for the time when they will equally be united with the Trinity.
Luke’s account of the earliest days of the church often has a reference to what he wrote in his Gospel. Today is the account of the death of the first martyr, Stephen, who as he dies echoes the words of Jesus on the cross: ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ For a fuller understanding of Stephen’s role in the community, begin reading at chapter 6. He was one of the seven chosen as ‘deacons’ to see that the community’s care for its poorer members was well and fairly carried out. But early on, he seems to have taken on the role of healer and preacher as well, and it was his success in this that aroused the anger of the Jewish authorities. Luke gives a long report of the address he gave, drawing in the Old Testament relations which he felt give authority to what Jesus came to preach and do. Because of his view that Christ has superseded the Temple, he was accused of blasphemy and a sort of lynching was carried out by stoning. He was given a vision of Jesus in the full glory of God the Father.
Palm 96/97:1-2, 6-7, 9
This short psalm is one of those that takes the image of God as like a King, ruling over the earth and the full cosmos. It fits well with the visions of Stephen.
Apocalypse/Revelation 22:12-14. 16—17:20
These words are from the conclusion of the long – and often confusing to modern minds – of the last book of our Bible. It was written in the form called ‘apocalyptic’, aimed at giving encouragement to believers under threat. The book concludes with Jesus’ self-proclamation of the One from the beginning, and who is also the ‘end’ of time. Various images are used, as for those who trust in Jesus he is like the ‘Morning Star’ which brings on the full light of day. The image of the Bride as the church draws on the Hebrew prophet’s image of God’s love for his people like a husband for his wife, and now the new people of God have been given that relationship. Jesus has ‘gone’ in his Ascension to the Father, but Christians are to expect a return that will fulfil this closeness, and ‘Come’ expresses the yearning for this to happen. In the meantime, our ‘thirst’ – our need for what sustains life – is answered as by grace as if flowing water, to take as a free gift.
People in modern times seem not to have the sense of urgency felt by this fervent preacher, who names himself as John, nor the same eagerness for the Spirit to come. While we have work to do on earth, we perhaps need to regain that sense of expectation that all will be fulfilled at a coming time. We live in a world full of seeming unsolvable problems, but this book urges us to believe God is the answer and we need the faith and patience to trust in that.
This Evangelist has set at the Last Supper a long ‘discourse’ of Jesus speaking to his disciples before he goes to the cross. It is full of words of comfort, of strengthening and also the assurance that God would be sending in his place the ‘Advocate’ – the Holy Spirit. Now at the final conclusion Jesus prays aloud to his Father, laying out in various detailed ways how the disciples are to be united just as the Father and Son are one. Jesus makes a startling point – that that these words are not just for the those who knew Jesus in his lifetime, but for all of us who have heard the Word through them and also come to believe. Jesus thus prayed for each of us in our own time.
The words here can be compared to the opening ‘prologue’ of the Gospel, where Jesus is called the ‘Word’ which was in the beginning with God and sharing the nature of God. There the Word was to take on human nature, and came into the world, and with that fullness of his human nature, Jesus is ‘going back’ to the Father. Although the Holy Spirit is not named in either section, as it was earlier in this chapter, I recall a theology that describes the Spirit as the love between the Father and the Son. That gives to these promises a sense of a total immersion of our lives in the eternal loving relationship of the Trinity.
Words often pass quickly as we hear them at mass, but I agree with Nicholas King (in his recent translation of the New Testament) that this prayer of Jesus is so profound that we need to find a time to go over it ‘slowly and prayerfully’.