NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: JOHN 13:31-33A, 34-35
FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER USCCB LINK TO ALL THREE READINGS
When Judas had left them, Jesus said,
“Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.
If God is glorified in him,
God will also glorify him in himself,
and God will glorify him at once.
My children, I will be with you only a little while longer.
I give you a new commandment: love one another.
As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.
This is how all will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another.”
The Fifth Sunday of Easter puts the Church closer to the observance of the other great feasts of the Easter Season, the Ascension and Pentecost. The Ascension is celebrated this year on May 5 (Thursday) or May 8 (Sunday) depending upon where you live. In the 1990’s the Vatican gave permission to countries where the feast is not a national holiday to transfer its observance to the following Sunday. There was an old joke that some bishops resisted the move because they would lose the holy day collection on Thursday, but in fact there is considerable wisdom in moving the feast to the Seventh Sunday of Easter, since few people attend Mass on weekday holy days and the Ascension is too important a feast to lose.
With these major feasts approaching, there is a shift in the Easter Season Gospels in preparation for what is to come. After three Sundays of Resurrection appearances, last Sunday’s Gospel turned to the nature of the relation of Jesus to his disciples and future followers with the imagery of the Good Shepherd. This Sunday’s Gospel is set at the Last Supper, from the opening line in which “Judas left them.” This phrase is double entendre: Judas has indeed “left” in the sense of rejecting the brotherhood of believers he has belonged to for some time, and his departure of course is timed to set in motion the arrest of Jesus a few hours later. The evangelist John has already pegged Judas as a scoundrel, commenting earlier that Judas had no regard for the poor and frequently pilfered from monies set aside for them. (John 12: 5-6)
Scholars and churchmen have often divided the Gospel of John into two parts: the book of sign and the book of glory. The book of signs (chapters 1-12) features a handful of detailed miracles which introduce a lengthy discourse or debate over the meaning of the sign, and more to the point, the nature of the man who performed it. A classic example of this model is the story of the man born blind, a text from the A Cycle used during the final formation of the catechumens during Lent, where the act of healing leads to an angry and protracted response by Jewish leaders who actually summon the man’s parents to certify that he was indeed born blind. The first half of the Gospel depicts Jesus declaring himself to all persons—those of good will, those on the fence (Nicodemus?), and those who would have a murderous response (Caiphas).
The book of glory, opening at the Last Supper at Chapter 13, is more private and depicts exchanges between Jesus and those he truly considers his sheep. It is a time where Jesus will no longer work individual miracles for others but will undertake his greatest work of all, the free laying down of his life as the ultimate Passover sacrifice. In this he will be glorified by his father, as he knows he and the Father are one.
Thus, when Judas leaves the supper room and Jesus does nothing to stop him, Jesus is fully aware that the Rubicon has been crossed, that by allowing Judas to leave and prepare for the arrest, he has given his full consent to all that will follow. For Jesus, of course, this moment marks the beginning of the revelation of his glory as the Son of Man. At first glance such a statement would sound like excessive self-aggrandizement, but since the Father and the Son are identical (consubstantial, of one substance, as our Nicene Creed at Mass would put it) Jesus knows that the perfect work he is about to complete is actually a reflection of his Father’s glory. That Jesus would give all as a testament of his Father’s glory, and the Father in turn would raise Jesus to a place of eternal glory, we have the essence of the importance of the Ascension, which is actually about Jesus’ destination, and not about his manner of conveyance.
Despite the brevity of the passage this weekend, Jesus also introduces the role of his on-going presence in his community through his gift of the Spirit. He explains a reality that perhaps his disciples had been reluctant to face, that one way or another Jesus would not be with the disciples much longer. There are things he needs to say, and the most important is that the disciples (and those to follow) “love one another.” Interestingly Jesus describes his teaching as a new commandment. Perhaps this phrasing was intended to indicate a change from the legal emphasis of the Hebrew Scripture. But more likely, Jesus is emphasizing a new intensity of love, that they “love one another as I have loved you.” This was a command, after all, coming from one who was about to die for them. In the final line of Sunday’s text, Jesus emphasizes that this love will be evident and evangelical for outsiders who behold Christian communities in their midsts: people who love each other enough that they would die for each other.
Such a love would not be possible without divine presence, and in reflecting upon the Gospel this week, we may be wise to look down the road at the third great feast of Easter, Pentecost Sunday on May 15. Although described differently in the Gospels of Luke and John, the central fact remains that Christianity cannot live without the “breath of God,” the divine presence of the Holy Spirit, also consubstantial with the Father and the Son.