The Daily Bread, 8th May, 2020: The outstretched, wounded hand.
Readings: Acts 13:26-33; Psalm 2:6-11; John 14:1-6
During this period of Eastertide, in the year 1978, I received a gift from a friend of my own personal Lectionary (the book that has all the readings for Mass all the year round). It was the first time I had received one. At the beginning of Lent that year, if I recall correctly, I had received the “lectorate”, which was a step towards holy orders. I was, you might say, “officially” now a reader!
Probably just because the book felt and smelt new and was “all mine”, and maybe because I was now a lector, I decided I would faithfully prepare every day from then on the readings of the subsequent day. By preparation, I mean not only reading over and spotting the difficult words, but meditating and questioning and contemplating and praying over the readings.
It was during that Eastertide that I can say that I fell in love with the Word of God for the first time. I had always respected it and tried to follow closely the lectures we got at the Gregorian University on this or that book of the bible. But this was now something completely new. It was truly the experience of an encounter with the Word, both with the written Word and with the living Person of the Word, Jesus, and with the latter through and because of the former.
It was probably helped by the fact that the Gospel readings for this period of Eastertide are mostly taken from the Gospel of Saint John, the beloved disciple. If you take time with John’s Gospel, you can see that he was the beloved of Jesus, you can sense it in what he wrote. You can also see that he dearly and sorely loved Jesus. His Gospel gets to the core of things. It cuts through to the main issues: faith or unbelief, light or darkness, sin or love, life or death. It’s as if you can sense in John his desire to get to the deepest soul of his beloved Jesus, to “suss him out”, to penetrate to the deepest secret of his heart, his person, his mission.
The excerpt we just heard today is from the beginning of chapter 14 of St. John’s Gospel. The experts have coined the phrase “the Book of Glory” to describe chapters 13-21 of St. John because in these chapters, Jesus reveals plainly to those who believe in him the glory of his identity as Son of the Father and of his love “to the end” of both the Father and of his disciples. It begins with the Last Supper, moves through the long discourse of Jesus at the Supper (chapters 13-17), then goes on to the Passion and death (chapters 18-19) and finally the resurrection and apparitions of Jesus (chapters 20-21).
Once you have been “caught” by the Book of Glory, your mouth almost waters when you know that you are going to have time to hear even a few verses from it, never mind read it all or spend an hour with some of it. In fact, it is almost too much to try and take it all in in one go: it’s like trying to exhaust by drinking a copious fountain of delicious wine. It gets you “drunk” on God. It is overwhelming.
The verses we have heard today are very familiar to us because they are frequently chosen to be read at the requiem Mass. They express the “troubled heart” of those left behind when a loved one is dying. Before Jesus spoke these words, he had instituted the eucharist, speaking of how his body was going to be given up and his blood poured out. The disciples had also already heard him speak of his death and betrayal. So, they were naturally very anxious and troubled. Their very own Jesus, their beloved friend and master, with all of his beautiful warmth and depth of love and kindness and wisdom and patience: he was leaving them! How could they be anything but distraught!
And Jesus knows it. He always knows it. He reads us like we were an open gospel. And, true to form, he addresses their pain head-on with immense compassion and understanding, but also with characteristic realism. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” The sense of the original Greek is, “Stop dwelling on your anxiety.” The sense is that they are getting “bogged down” by it, stuck as if paralysed in their fear and pain. The sense is also that Jesus is gently telling them to “let up”, to pull themselves together.
And then he tells them what they should employ their hearts in doing instead: “trust in God (the Father) and trust also in me.” There are two things to note here: first, the word “heart” in the bible means the “seat or deepest root of the person”; second, the word “in” (as in “trust in”) actually translates as “towards”, as in a movement towards something. Put plainly, Jesus is saying, “don’t get stuck in your anxious self but move yourself outwards towards the Father and me.” The antidote to anxiety of heart is trust in God. By trust, we come out of ourselves and our self-awareness and we place ourselves completely in the divine Persons of the Father and the Son and in their awareness of what is going on.
Jesus then admits that he is leaving them: “I am going now to prepare a place for you” in the Father’s house, or heaven. Jesus accomplishes this by his death and resurrection: these make it possible for the disciples, all disciples who believe, to have a place in heaven. What you could say is that Jesus is asking the disciples to leave their anxious paralysis and to move in union with him by their trust in him. Their trust unites them to Jesus as he goes through death and rises to heaven, to the Father’s house. He dies and rises; by their trust in him, they die and rise in him. This is really what baptism is.
Then come some of the most consoling and stupendous words in the Gospel, as far as I am concerned! Jesus says, “And after I have gone and prepared you a place, I shall return to take you with me, so that where I am you may be too.” I think this is the most beautiful and Christian way to understand death. Death is not the calamitous collision with nothingness! It is the Jesus in whom I have trusted my whole life long who comes to me on the day of my departure from this life and stretches out his hand to me, for me to take it as he then lifts me over and up to the Father’s house.
What’s even more stupendous is the phrase, “so that where I am you may be too.” Notice the words “I am” or, better, “I AM.” Whenever Jesus uses these words, he is speaking about his divinity. If he wants us to be where “HE IS”, it means he wants us to share in his divinity. In other words, he is here promising eternal life to us. We are to become divine, not by nature (that’s only true of the Trinity), buy by gifted participation or, you could say, by adoption. That’s the fulfilment of baptism.
If we truly allow this living Word of Jesus to cut through and embed itself in our “heart”, our deepest self, not even death itself can hold any crippling fear for us, for death is the wounded and glorious hand of Jesus stretched out, as to Peter going under the water, and lifting us to “walk on the waters” of eternity with him, with the Father and the Spirit, and with all who have believed in and loved him, not least our Blessed Mother.
Jesus is himself the Way by virtue of his incarnation. We access God through the humanity of Jesus. He is the Truth, by virtue of the fact that he is the ultimate meaning of all that exists and gives the ultimate understanding of all that exists. This he has done by speaking the Word that HE IS, the same Word that created the universe from nothing and will raise the dead to life at the end of time. And he is also the Life to which we go. Our destiny is not the limited confines of our little minds and hearts (no matter how great some may think they are!), but the very life, mind and heart of the Son of God. To see him, to see as he sees, to love and experience love as does he, to know and be known as is he, to breathe with the Holy Spirit as does he, to participate in the same glorified body as does he. To do and have all of this in union with every other person who has ever lived and is yet to live and believe and hope and love him. All of this and more is our destiny.
Let us then endure this lockdown of the coronavirus and the lockdown that is human life itself in comparison with the eternal life which is our final and permanent blossoming. It will soon pass, and we will soon pass over to Jesus by dint of his outstretched hand and of his eternal love for his little beloved ones whom we are and are called to be.