The Farewell Discourse of Jesus we’re reading in the liturgy during the weeks of Easter is an important source for understanding the liturgy, the sacraments and especially the Eucharist.
We usually go to theological summaries like that in the Catechism of the Catholic Faith ( Cat. 1066-1690 ) when we want information on the sacraments, but we shouldn’t forget this liturgical source. John’s Farewell Discourse was the early church’s basic source for learning about the world of signs that Jesus left his disciples after his resurrection. The latin church and all the eastern churches read from the Farewell Discourse in their liturgies in the weeks after Easter to reflect on the sacraments.
The Farewell Discourse offers a more existential picture of life in a sacramental age than the catechism does. It offers more than a picture of the Last Supper. The Farewell Discourse reflects also the experience of the first followers of Jesus as they ate and drank with Jesus after his resurrection.
They’re troubled, even as the Risen Jesus makes himself known. They experience joy he has risen, but they also experience his physical presence less and less. They’re becoming orphans, they think. They’re uncertain and have questions, even as Jesus tells them he is the way. “Do not let your hearts be troubled and afraid,” he says to them.
They question him even as he promises them great things:“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.” (John 14:1-6) They’re uneasy.
“A little while and you will no longer see me, and again a little while later and you will see me.” So some of his disciples said to one another, “What does this mean that he is saying to us, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?”So they said, “What is this ‘little while’ [of which he speaks]? We do not know what he means.” (John 15:17)
Patristic teachers like Ambrose and Cyril of Jerusalem were aware of the experience the Farewell Discourse describes when preaching to the newly baptized in their time. They understand the limitations of sacraments and life in a sacramental age. “Is this it? Ambrose hears them say. Cyril appeals to the signs that reveal the mystery at the center of it all. Trust the signs, he says.
“In the sacraments Christ himself is at work” the catechism says, “ it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies.” (Cat. 1127) Yet it’s the Christ of faith at work. “Although you have not seen him you love him; even though you do not see him now yet believe in him,” Peter says. (1 Peter 1:3-9)
One of the reasons we read the Acts of the Apostles along with the Farewell Discourse in the Easter Season is that Acts pictures the church growing despite the misgivings of Jesus’ disciples, who miss his physical presence. Movements usually die when their leaders die; the church grew when Jesus passed from this life to the Father.
In today’s reading from the Farewell Discourse, Jesus says that loving him brings us to keep his commandments and leads us to love the Father. “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him” (John 14: 21-26)
Raymond Brown in his commentary on the Farewell Discourse makes the interesting observation that Jesus only speaks of loving him at this time in the gospel, namely at the time of his death and resurrection. He never mentions loving him during his ministry in Galilee and in Judea.
Love appears now because his death and resurrection are supreme acts of his love. Jesus shows his disciples the wounds in his hands and his side, not just as proof that he is alive, but as signs of his great love, which has to be answered with love.
The Sign of his Cross is the great sign of the Easter Season. It’s remembered in the gospels, the sacraments. It’s the sign of the sacramental age.