NEXT SUNDAY’S READING: MATTHEW 28: 16-20
FEAST OF THE ASCENSION
USCCB Link to all three readings
The eleven disciples went to Galilee,
to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.
When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.
Then Jesus approached and said to them,
"All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age."
We are back with the narrative of St. Matthew’s Gospel, and the assigned reading for the Feast of the Ascension in Cycle A is the very conclusion of this Gospel book, a passage often referred to as “The Great Commissioning.” R.T. France makes the observation that Matthew has successfully brought together all of the important themes of his Gospel in this mountaintop summary. Curiously the final gathering of Jesus and his disciples here makes no mention of an “ascending.” Before looking closely at Matthew’s text, it might be helpful to make slight catechetical detour into what is meant by the term Ascension.
Every church bulletin, every front page of a Catholic newspaper, every church envelope, and every holy card devoted to this feast will feature a portrait of Jesus rising into the clouds. My early catechism depicted the feast in this fashion, too. There is some need for caution here. If we take the term “Ascension” literally as an upward departure, we run the risk of turning the full meaning of this feast into a utilitarian exercise: how did Jesus get from point A (earth) to point B, the right hand of the Father in glory, presumably heaven?
The term “Ascension” actually describes the post-crucifixion role of Jesus. First and foremost, the Gospels agree that the Father’s role in raising Jesus from the dead is continuous with Jesus’ divine enthronement at the Father’s right hand as divine ruler in eternal glory. Sunday is a feast of the Glory of the Christ, an observance that marks the present and future glory of Jesus. The feast also tends to the question of how we stay in communion with Jesus, Son of the Father. In Matthew’s text, Jesus promises to be with his disciples—and those who will be baptized in the future— “until the end of the age.” The Gospel writers tend to these realities in a variety of ways; it is only St. Luke who uses the visual metaphor of rising into the clouds; his description serves as Sunday’s first reading.
Matthew’s full Gospel has depicted Jesus as the new Moses who has come to bring the Law and the Prophets to fulfillment. In Sunday’s Gospel, he ties together the Jewishness of Jesus with a new sense of universal salvation. France points out that for much of the Gospel the action has moved north [Galilee] to south [Jerusalem]. In the post-Resurrection narrative Matthew has the action moving from south to north again; Jesus has told the women in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday that he will meet with the Eleven not in Jerusalem but back north in the rural mountain country of Galilee, where his ministry began. The “Jesus event” has run its evangelical course back to its roots; how fitting that Galilee will mark the beginning of the apostolic venture.
France’s commentary indicates that the eleven are meeting Jesus in his full enthronement as the divine God. Hence the Ascension/glorification has already taken place. As Matthew writes, “When they saw him, they worshipped….” In the Old and the New Testament lexicon, one pays worship only to the divine. That said, the evangelist notes how “they doubted.” The NABRE translation, used in the Mass, translates the line to indicate that “they [all] doubted.” Luke and John indicate that some doubted (in John, famously, the Apostle Thomas). France’s own translation suggests that a portion doubted. The term “doubted” has multiple meanings: The Gospels agree that Jesus was “changed” by his Resurrection/glorification, perhaps akin to the Transfiguration when Peter, James, and John came more than slightly unhinged when enveloped in the divine cloud.
It is also true that the gathering described here is the first reunion of Jesus and the Eleven after their mass betrayal on Holy Thursday night, and some may have wondered how Jesus would react to them. France is technical on the Greek rendering of “doubt;” “it denotes not intellectual doubt as much as practical uncertainty.” [France, p. 1111] Jesus’ presence alone is enough to convey forgiveness for the disciples’ earlier weaknesses. He proceeds to identify himself as the One to whom all power in heaven and earth has been given—a divine identification. Matthew borrows language from the Prophet Daniel, who describes the glorious apocalyptic appearance of the Son of Man in roughly the same way; what Matthew implies here is that the future is now, and the disciples will be the ones to gather the faithful into the glory of God’s kingdom. It is worth noting that Jesus’ claim to dominion over heaven and earth is much stronger than the devil’s offer of all the kingdoms of the earth at the time of temptation in the desert.
Jesus draws the Eleven together for a major instruction: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations….” Matthew here borrows Old Testament language to describe God’s commissioning for future mission, notably addressed to Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Samuel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Jesus here speaks to the disciples as the Father has done in Old Testament times, another indication of Jesus’ divinity and identity with the Father. Moreover, the instruction of Jesus includes the call to “make disciples” who, like the holy ones mentioned above, will be consecrated for specific mission
The command to baptize in the three-fold identity of God is, of course, yet another indication of Jesus’ identity in the Trinity as sharing the life and substance. The command is extended to all the nations, not exclusively Israel, though the Jews are not specifically excluded, either. The universality of the Gospel message took some time for the early Church to absorb, as is seen in the Acts of the Apostles, where Paul had to convince the disciples of the need to baptize Gentiles without Jewish initiation and circumcision.
It is fitting that the last line of this Gospel depicts Jesus’ promise to be with the disciples and their communities until the end of the age. Way back in Matthew 1:23 Joseph is instructed by an angel in a dream to take Mary as his wife. The angel names their future child Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” Matthew thus begins and ends his Gospel
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: JOHN 14: 15-21
SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
USCCB link to all three readings
Jesus said to his disciples:
"If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
And I will ask the Father,
and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always,
the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept,
because it neither sees nor knows him.
But you know him, because he remains with you,
and will be in you.
I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.
In a little while the world will no longer see me,
but you will see me, because I live and you will live.
On that day you will realize that I am in my Father
and you are in me and I in you.
Whoever has my commandments and observes them
is the one who loves me.
And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father,
and I will love him and reveal myself to him."
For most of the country the Sixth Sunday of Easter precedes the last two major feasts of the Easter Season, the Ascension of the Lord [May 28] and Pentecost Sunday [June 4]. The exception is the collection of dioceses that celebrate the Ascension on Thursday, May 25; there is a Missal/Lectionary format at the USCCB site for a “Seventh Sunday of Easter” for those dioceses to use on the weekend of May 28. Given that the Café is based in the territory of the Diocese of Orlando, Florida, where the Ascension is celebrated on Sunday, I will use that dating format. “When in Rome…or Disneyworld.”
Over the past Sundays of the Easter Season there has been a shift in emphasis in the Sunday Lectionary from Gospel narratives of the Resurrection appearances themselves to intimate revelations of the mystery of the works of God and how these will continue when Jesus returns to the Father. When the Roman liturgy was reformed after Vatican II, considerable effort was made to unite the three feasts of Redemption—Easter, Ascension, Pentecost. This is one reason that many dioceses switched the Feast of the Ascension to a Sunday, out of concern that Catholics—notoriously lax about Mass attendance on holy days—would not miss the observance of a significant feast of salvation. Incidentally, there is no compelling theological reason to celebrate the Ascension on a Thursday, as the New Testament itself does not agree on the timing; St. John places the Ascension on Easter Sunday!
The unity of these three feasts reflects the Trinitarian nature of the Easter Season: the Father loves the Son, raises and glorifies the Son, who in turn sends forth the Spirit. In addressing this Sunday’s Gospel, it is helpful to bear in mind that what we read here may be the early Church’s coming to grips with the Trinitarian concept, a belief that was finally put into a creed statement at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. [Somewhat ironically, the Feast of Trinity Sunday was moved outside of the Easter Season in the 1970 reform, though it still falls on the Sunday after Pentecost.]
In his Anchor Bible Commentary, Father Raymond Brown observes that Jesus speaks of his disciples’ loving him, adding that this is an unusual New Testament phrasing. Through most of the Gospels—including John’s—Jesus calls forth belief in him, but infrequently love. In this context love is equated to keeping “my commandments,” a parallel to the Hebrew Scriptures where God calls forth love and fidelity from the Israelites precisely through the observance of the Law. In the context of St. John’s writings—particularly 1 John 3—the thrust of “keeping my commandments” is love, or more specifically, a lifestyle in which one would lay down one’s life for a friend.
Living in this way unites one to Jesus, and not only to Jesus, but to his Father and the Spirit Advocate. Brown identifies “divine indwelling” as a major theme of this text (and others in St. John’s sequence.) “On that day, you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.” In another place in the text Jesus states that the Father will send an Advocate; later Jesus says that “I will come to you.” From a purely objective reading, one gets a sense of confusion; what is actually expressed is the mysterious unity of “persons” in the Trinity as later Church Councils would put it. I can recall my early catechism speaking of the mystery of the Trinity as “three in one,” or more precisely, “how can something be one and three at the same time?” [And sister said, “this is a mystery. “So did the pastor in his Trinity Sunday sermon.] St. Patrick supposedly used a clover to teach the Trinity to the Celts—the Irish are fortunate he did not randomly choose a four-leaf clover.
Seen through the eyes of faith, Sunday’s reading also addresses “human indwelling” with God. I was teaching at a Catholic school yesterday when a faculty member described to me her first realization/sensation that through her baptism God was inside her, a very accurate theological way of putting it. The poetic language of Sunday’s Gospel is Jesus’ statement of humanity’s purpose—love God by loving one’s neighbor, and thus be enfolded into the fullness of the life of the very Trinity. Sacramental action renders this enfolding visible—consuming the body and blood of Jesus at the Eucharist, for example—as John 6 argues so vividly. Sunday’s Gospel thus sets the stage for the two feasts that follow, Ascension and Pentecost. We celebrate these feasts not as observers but as witnesses of our own identity and destiny—if we “love one another.”
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: JOHN 14: 1-12
FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
USCCB link to all readings
Jesus said to his disciples:
"Do not let your hearts be troubled.
You have faith in God; have faith also in me.
In my Father's house there are many dwelling places.
If there were not,
would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?
And if I go and prepare a place for you,
I will come back again and take you to myself,
so that where I am you also may be.
Where I am going you know the way."
Thomas said to him,
"Master, we do not know where you are going;
how can we know the way?"
Jesus said to him, I am the way and the truth and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me.
If you know me, then you will also know my Father.
From now on you do know him and have seen him."
Philip said to him,
"Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us."
Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you for so long a time
and you still do not know me, Philip?
Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.
How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?
Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?
The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own.
The Father who dwells in me is doing his works.
Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me,
or else, believe because of the works themselves.
Amen, amen, I say to you,
whoever believes in me will do the works that I do,
and will do greater ones than these,
because I am going to the Father."
There is a lot of pressure on pastors to observe Mother’s Day, and by extension, to include some kind of Marian devotional such as a May Crowning, on the civil observance of Mother’s Day. I can’t guarantee with a straight face that in your local church you will hear preaching on the Gospel text per se, as called for by the Lectionary/Roman Missal, which takes no note of this U.S. civil custom. However, I take note of Pope John Paul II’s 1998 Apostolic Letter Dies Domini (Day of the Lord):
80. There is a need for special pastoral attention to the many situations where there is a risk that the popular and cultural traditions of a region may intrude upon the celebration of Sundays and other liturgical feast-days, mingling the spirit of genuine Christian faith with elements which are foreign to it and may distort it. In such cases, catechesis and well-chosen pastoral initiatives need to clarify these situations, eliminating all that is incompatible with the Gospel of Christ. At the same time, it should not be forgotten that these traditions — and, by analogy, some recent cultural initiatives in civil society — often embody values which are not difficult to integrate with the demands of faith. It rests with the discernment of Pastors to preserve the genuine values found in the culture of a particular social context and especially in popular piety, so that liturgical celebration — above all on Sundays and holy days — does not suffer but rather may actually benefit.
Thus, present Church guidance on the subject is not exactly rock solid, leaving local bishops and pastors to decide how to manage this Sunday’s observance. Substituting Sunday readings is a rather serious liturgical offense; even a bishop who confirms on Sunday is bound to use the Sunday readings. Ignoring the Sunday readings in the sermon, on the other hand, is as common as dandelions nearly everywhere I go.
In any event, John 14 introduces the Last Supper Discourse, a four-chapter segment in which Jesus addresses the problem of what will happen to the disciples he will leave behind. Again, it bears reminding that this text was written much later than the actual Last Supper, almost a century later by some reckoning, so the thrust of John’s text is just as validly directed toward our generation as to the troubled church community of John’s time. Last week I spelled out some of the heresies prevalent in John’s time; in Sunday’s Gospel text, it is somewhat easy to pick up strands of theological response, such as Jesus’ reply to Philip that “whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” a clear declaration of what we call today the doctrine of the Incarnation, the Word [God} become flesh [human].
If the disciples are troubled, they have right to be. The conclusion of Chapter 13 recounts Jesus’ words to Peter, “Amen, I say to you, the cock will not crow before you deny me three times.” Not only was Jesus’ destiny a mystery to them, but their own identity as his followers was shaken to the core in the process. Thus, the need to walk them through “the plan.” In the opening twelve chapters Jesus had spoken in signs; now he “speaks plainly” though the struggles of the disciples here and throughout the Last Supper discourse give credence to the probability that the early church needed some time to get its bearings secured.
There is something of an apocalyptic revival in John’s Gospel. The very first New Testament writing, Paul’s letter to Thessalonica in around 50 A.D., is very apocalyptic, with its future-oriented subject matter being the Second Coming of Jesus, which was expected imminently. However, in subsequent New Testament writing the church came to grips with living in the here and now, most notably in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Luke, in particular, develops the sacramental principle of Christ in our midst now, in the breaking of the bread.
It is interesting, then, that the last of the canonical New Testament writers would return to a futuristic emphasis upon not only Jesus’ destiny—which, despite current circumstances, was assumed to be good—but the destiny of the disciples, and by extension, the church. Jesus’ extensive opening words of comfort are centered around the ideas that (1) the Father’s “place” is also the destiny of the believer, and (2) Jesus’ return to the Father is assurance that they themselves will come into glory, specifically “to be with me.” The exhortation is to believe in Jesus.
Again, in this Gospel Thomas assumes the role of house foil, so to speak. On cue, he argues that the disciples do not know the way. His question provides Jesus with the opportunity to declare his identity and the role he plays for his followers. “I am (Greek, the divine ego eimi) the way, the truth, and the life.” Jesus goes on to explain that “no one comes to the Father except through me.” Philip’s request to “show us the Father” allows Jesus to make the central tenet of Christian faith, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” It is worth noting here that it was not until the fourth century that the Church found creedal language to express this mysterious truth; the Council of Nicaea in 325 used the Greek word homoousios to describe Jesus as “of the same substance” as the Father. The Latin translation to English results in “consubstantial,” the word returned to the Mass in 2011.
The key to participation in future glory with Christ is a profound belief that Jesus, as God, is the Savior, now and in the future. For this reason, the Sunday Gospel text concludes with his words that whoever owns such faith will do greater signs and deeds than Jesus himself performed, “because I am going to the Father.” There is a sense here that the vigorous work of the church cannot really begin until Jesus has returned to his Father, which is in fact the condition of the Church in the post-Resurrection era, and that the Father will now work through the followers directly, as He had with Jesus in his earthly sojourn.
Regrettably, the magnificent Last Supper Discourse of John is proclaimed partially over a few episodes of successive Sundays until Ascension Thursday. Chapters 14 through 17 in their entirety are much worth your while as a source of meditation and prayer. I have a link to the NABRE translations of these chapters here. I should also note that the U.S. Bishops’ site has just begun a podcast service of each day’s readings—Sundays and weekdays—through I-Tunes with a link here.
I am late today because the Café carpets were cleaned, particularly at my computer console. As of 7:21 PM the carpet is dry enough to finish today’s post. The carpet at my work station is a lovely coffee color. Unfortunately, when I started posting here three years ago, the carpet was grey.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: JOHN 10: 1-10
FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
USCCB link to all three readings
"Amen, amen, I say to you,
whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate
but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber.
But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.
The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice,
as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
When he has driven out all his own,
he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him,
because they recognize his voice.
But they will not follow a stranger;
they will run away from him,
because they do not recognize the voice of strangers."
Although Jesus used this figure of speech,
the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.
So Jesus said again, "Amen, amen, I say to you,
I am the gate for the sheep.
All who came before me are thieves and robbers,
but the sheep did not listen to them.
I am the gate.
Whoever enters through me will be saved,
and will come in and go out and find pasture.
A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy;
I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly."
Given that the last three Sundays of the Resurrection have focused upon the joy and mystery of Jesus’ victory over the grave, there is something of an abrupt shift in the Gospel of the Fourth Sunday of Easter (devotionally referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday” a few generations back). John 10 is situated toward the end of Jesus’ public ministry, between the miracle of the man born blind (Fourth Sunday of Lent) and the raising of Lazarus (Fifth Sunday of Lent.) Twice in this sequence Jesus encounters hostile Jewish enemies who wish to do him physical harm. As Raymond Brown notes in his Anchor Bible Commentary, there is nothing in the Greek text to suggest that the audience for this Sunday’s discourse (John 10: 1-10) is different from the one that has consistently questioned and harassed him.
The text, at first glance, is directed toward Jesus’ enemies in his own time, though his enemies were slow to pick this up, “the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.” The inclusion of the term Pharisees is helpful in identifying the main thrust of Jesus’ words; they are identified with a perversion of the Law in strong language, as “thieves and robbers.” Matthew 24:3 contains a similar sentiment: “So practice and observe everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, burdensome loads and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”
John’s use of the sheep and shepherd metaphor is consistent with the other three Gospels. St. Mark speaks of the crowd following Jesus as sheep without a shepherd, and St. Luke’s parable of the lost sheep (chapter 15) is a catechetical staple. In our setting, the metaphor begins with entering the sheepfold, where one is safe and well nurtured. There is one gate to this haven, protected by an authorized shepherd or gate keeper. Anyone who tries to obtain access to the flock by jumping the fence is “a thief and a robber.” When the flock must leave the haven of the corral, it is the voice of the true shepherd who keeps them together as they move in search of grazing land or water. “They will not follow a stranger…because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.”
There is some confusion in following this text because throughout Chapter 10 Jesus does change metaphors. In our Sunday reading one would swear that Jesus is identifying himself as the shepherd. But in the second paragraph Jesus declares “I am the gate;” But then, but for the balance of Chapter 10 (beyond Sunday’s text) Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd. The constant in the entire chapter, as Father Brown observes, (p. 388) is the presence of dangerous thieves and marauders. Whether as the gate or the shepherd, Jesus identifies himself as a figure of authority, or better, the figure of authority. The Greek translation of “I am” in John’s Gospel is ego eimi, a translation of the much earlier Israelite term for God, as at the burning bush with Moses: “I am who I am” has sent you to pharaoh.” Consider in John’s Gospel, “I am the bread of life,” or “I am the vine, you are the branches.”
John’s entire Gospel is a statement of Jesus’ identity, which was a subject of much misunderstanding and fierce partisanship. Father Brown’s The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Life, Loves and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times (1978) was and remains a valuable if controversial treatment—a hypothesis, really—of the local church to which John was writing, a community with rifts if the three Epistles of John are any indication. By 100 A.D. or later, the best estimate of the dating of the Gospel’s composition, the antagonism between Jewish Christian converts and Gentile converts may have been running high, particularly if the community absorbed a large number of Samaritans who felt no love for Jews. Recall Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman.
The fact that Jesus repeats the “I am” phrase several times in Sunday’s text indicates John’s desire to pass along the nature of Jesus as truly God and truly man for future generations. Pheme Perkins, author of the Gospel of John Commentary in The Jerome Biblical Commentary (1990), makes an interesting point: “Perhaps the readers of the Gospel [of John] are envisaged as falling into one or more of the misunderstandings represented by characters in the story.” (p. 950). We know some of these misunderstandings from Paul’s epistles written five decades earlier: the Corinthian Christians had reduced Jesus to myth; the Colossian Christians worshipped intermediate spirits and angels.
More widespread and dangerous were the heresies we know about in some detail. Gnostics denied that Jesus had ever been a man. Docetists held that Jesus was an appearance, not a man (against which John reports Jesus’ words to Thomas, “put your finger in my hands and my side….”). Marcionites rejected the whole of the Hebrew Scripture. Montanus identified himself as the Paraclete and attracted followers. Manicheans held that all matter was evil. These errors—and too many more to list—were in fully play by the beginning of the second century. (See Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity (1976), available on Kindle, Audible, and other formats, for a full description of the Christian mission, pp. 3-66)
In last Sunday’s Gospel—the disciples on the road to Emmaus—Luke corrects misunderstandings about Jesus arising from Hebrew Scripture in the past. In this Sunday’s Gospel, we see John encountering new challenges facing a Christian mission preaching a resurrected Savior to a much larger world than Palestine. Perhaps there is considerable wisdom in assigning this Gospel to the middle of the Church’s resurrection feast.