Sunday, May 26, 2019
6th Sunday of Easter
Liturgical Color: White
First Reading: Acts 15:1–2, 22–29
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 67:2–3, 5, 6, 8
Second Reading: Revelation 21:10–14, 22–23
Gospel: John 14:23–29
I have chosen to comment on the primary readings for this Sunday. However, in many dioceses the celebration of Ascension Thursday, which occurs during the week following this Sunday, is transferred to the following Sunday, using the Mass for the Solemnity of the Ascension. In this case, the liturgical instructions allow the celebrant to substitute for this Sunday (6th Sunday of Easter) the readings that would have been read on that Sunday (7th Sunday of Easter). This is not an obligatory substitution, but an optional one. I am convinced that many priests will choose not to use the alternate readings, and this has influenced my own decision to discuss the original readings.
Almost from the beginning of Christianity (Acts 10, resting on numerous Old Testament prophecies that the Gentiles would eventually join the Jews in worshiping the true God), it was clear to the Apostles that the Gentiles had equal access to salvation through Jesus Christ. But how was this to be accomplished? Were the Gentiles first to become Jews, embracing circumcision, and only then have the right to move on, via baptism, to Christianity? Or did they have their own, more direct path to salvation within the Church? If adopted, how would this second way appear to the Jewish Christians?
The Jerusalem Council, where the Apostles and elders of the original Church community were gathered, is given only in summary form in our reading: the situation that brought it about, followed by the conclusions of the Church’s leaders (and, as they themselves pointed out, the Holy Spirit) as to what should be done.
To us, millennia later, the answer seems obvious: The Gentiles are not becoming Jews, but Christians. They have no need of circumcision, because one becomes Christian through baptism, not through circumcision. So they will be baptized, as will those Jews who accept Christ, even if they previously had relied on circumcision. But it is reasonable that the first Christians had to hash it out.
But how dare they arrogate the Holy Spirit to attest to their decision? Well, this week’s Gospel reading (John 14:26) suggests how that might have come about: “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” The Apostles are simply acting on the words they received directly from Jesus.
The Responsorial Psalm mirrors this interpretation, for how else could it be said of the acceptance of the Gentiles, “Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth”?
Now, what did the council decide was requisite for the Gentiles to be accepted into the then-majority Jewish environment? Basically, they were being asked to do what a proselyte would be doing to be accepted into the Jewish religion, avoiding offense to Jewish sensibilities by observing the following: not eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols (anything offered to idols was essentially offered to demons — see 1 Corinthians 10:19–20 — and in addition was a practice which could tempt former pagans to revert); avoiding the consumption of blood (not eating the meat of strangled animals is essentially the same thing, because a strangled animal’s blood would remain in the animal), since blood was a sign of life and identified one with the creature consumed; and renouncing marital bonds (incest) and relations (sexual immorality) that Judaism identifies as intrinsically evil.
The whole letter, then, was a precaution to avoid conflict between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. It is prescriptive in nature, not defining morality, but instead designed to preserve the peace as the Christian religion expands into the pagan world.
Just as Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem as representatives of the church at Antioch, so Judas and Silas are sent in return as representatives of the church at Jerusalem. It is, in fact, the latter who will deliver the council’s letter. Paul and Barnabas have completed their mission and can only confirm the authenticity of Judas and Silas as bearing the word of the council for the Antiocheans to accept.
It is in this way that the authority of the early Church manifests itself, so that “child” churches, such as Antioch, are dependent on “parent” churches, deriving both doctrine and discipline from them. As time progresses, a single church — the one at Rome — is seen as the central locus of the universal Church, because of the final presence and martyrdom there of the Apostles Peter and Paul. Moreover, it is by the building of the renewed Kingdom of David through the conversion of the Gentiles that the culmination of Jesus Christ as Supreme Ruler on the Earth (the Pantocrator or King of Kings) is established. The Church, the New Jerusalem, is his bride, and this intimate relationship will be the focus of the Second Reading.
Inspired by the prophet’s vision of the New Temple in Ezekiel 40–48, the Apostle John describes the New Jerusalem, the spiritual Kingdom of God. We also call this Kingdom heaven. It’s all the same thing, just different names and descriptions for the culmination of the Christian life. It encompasses everything that has gone before, but it also transcends it. Just as the twelve Apostles are based on the twelve tribes of the Israelites, which are in turn based on the twelve sons of Jacob (also known as Israel), so the Tabernacle gave way to the Temple, which in turn yielded to the more open format of the Christian Church, which has no fixed locus and is not limited to a single nation. Now this vision must involve a New Heaven and New Earth, in which the gigantic New Jerusalem (one commentary states that the foursquare city is 1500 miles per side; scientists estimate that such a size is ample space for the entire world’s human population to live comfortably inside) is the home of not only all the saved, but of God Himself. For this reason, there is no temple in the city; God dwells everywhere in it, even within its inhabitants. And for this reason, too, there is no sun or moon or artificial light. The Lord, the light of all creation (John 8:12), illuminates the city from within; the Lamb — Jesus Christ — is its lamp.
St. Teresa of Avila, in her masterwork, The Interior Castle, describes the human soul in the state of grace in similar terms, for a similar reason:
I began to think of the soul as if it were a castle made of a single diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions. Now if we think carefully over this, sisters, the soul of the righteous man is nothing but a paradise, in which, as God tells us, He takes His delight. For what do you think a room will be like which is the delight of a King so mighty, so wise, so pure and so full of all that is good? I can find nothing with which to compare the great beauty of a soul and its great capacity.… Let us now imagine that this castle, as I have said, contains many mansions, some above, others below, others at each side; and in the centre and midst of them all is the chiefest mansion where the most secret things pass between God and the soul. You must think over this comparison very carefully; perhaps God will be pleased to use it to show you something of the favours which He is pleased to grant to souls, and of the differences between them, so far as I have understood this to be possible, for there are so many of them that nobody can possibly understand them all, much less anyone as stupid as I. If the Lord grants you these favours, it will be a great consolation to you to know that such things are possible; and, if you never receive any, you can still praise His great goodness. For, as it does us no harm to think of the things laid up for us in Heaven, and of the joys of the blessed, but rather makes us rejoice and strive to attain those joys ourselves, just so it will do us no harm to find that it is possible in this our exile for so great a God to commune with such malodorous worms, and to love Him for His great goodness and boundless mercy.
This gives us a picture of the same divine beauty in the city and in the soul. Each possesses the grace and indwelling presence of God. This is our glorious destiny, if only we accept it.
With the previous readings revealing the glory that awaits us in heaven, it should be no surprise that Jesus speaks, in our Gospel reading, in the same manner of the promised divine indwelling: “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” True love, he says, demands true obedience to the divine command. The reward, according to the Apostle John, is that God “became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son from the Father” (John 1:14). That glory can be ours, if we love God and obey him.
How is this accomplished? Through the action of the Holy Spirit. Just as the Apostle John was carried “in the Spirit to a great, high mountain,” from which he could behold the “holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Second Reading), so the same Spirit, the “Counselor,” “the Spirit of Truth” (John 15:26) will provide his own witness, teaching us “all things” and enlightening us as to the meaning of Christ’s words. Our task is to believe, and to follow up on that belief with practical life in accord with his will.
The Father will send this Paraclete, in the name and power of Jesus, so that the Paraclete will make Christ present in the Church, not physically but in a new way. The Paraclete will strengthen Jesus’ disciples with Christ’s own strength. The Paraclete will lead the disciples into all truth, so that they gradually come to a fuller understanding of all the implications of the teaching of Jesus. – Universalis Commentary
Isn’t this why we eagerly await the Solemnity of Pentecost? Isn’t this why we receive the Sacrament of Confirmation? To have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us is a great privilege. How do we treat the Holy Spirit? Do we appreciate Him properly, or do we just give Him lip service?