Bad news flashes from every media outlet twenty-four hours a day. In every corner of the world, locally and globally, people are suffering and dying. Sitting behind a screen or newspaper, judgment and blame pass back and forth, leaving no room for contemplative silence.
How did Jesus respond to the latest bad news of his day?
Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.
Pilate’s brutality was well known. In the accounts of Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, incidents of military and political violence against Jews and Samaritans were recorded. In Luke’s news flash, some unfortunate Galilean pilgrims to Jerusalem were killed by Pilate’s soldiers during a sacrificial slaughter of animals.
He said to them in reply, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!
Jesus dispelled the notion that all misfortune is the result of personal sin (retribution principle). Instead of offering an explanation for the mass murder, he counseled the news reporters to examine their own hearts.
Bad news distracts us from paying attention to what is within, but a contemplative outlook perceives that the suffering of others is our own.
Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”
Jesus offered another news flash: an accidental, mass death by the collapse of a tower in the old wall of ancient Jerusalem. Instead of judging and blaming the dead, the news offered an occasion to reflect on one’s own need of divine mercy and grace. As the preceding parables warned, life is short and unpredictable. Our hearts must be prepared, for any day may be our last.
And he told them this parable: “There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’ He said to him in reply, ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down’”
In the Old Testament, the fig tree symbolized Judah or Israel (Hosea 9:10; Jeremiah 8:13; 24:1-10), but in the light of Christ’s universal mission it extends to the whole human race.
St. Augustine writes:
This tree is the human race. The Lord visited this tree in the time of the patriarchs, as if for the first year. He visited it in the time of the law and the prophets, as if for the second year. Here we are now; with the gospel the third year has dawned. Now it is as though it should have been cut down, but the merciful one intercedes with the merciful one. He wanted to show how merciful he was, and so he stood up to himself with a plea for mercy. “Let us leave it,” he says, “this year too. Let us dig a ditch around it.” Manure is a sign of humility. “Let us apply a load of manure; perhaps it may bear fruit.”
As long as it is today, the tree may still bear fruit. Jesus, our merciful gardener, has granted us yet another day to spend it in love, praise, and service of the Lord of life and creation.
St. Augustine offers Proba, a Roman woman writing to him asking his advice about praying, some insights into the Lord’s Prayer. The early commentators usually based their teaching on the words Jesus taught his disciples.
“When we say: Hallowed be your name, we are reminding ourselves to desire that his name, which in fact is always holy, should also be considered holy among us. I mean that it should not be held in contempt. But this is a help for us, not for God.
And as for our saying: Your kingdom come, it will surely come whether we will it or not. But we are stirring up our desires for the kingdom so that it can come to us and we can deserve to reign there.
When we say: Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven, we are asking him to make us obedient so that his will may be done in us as it is done in heaven by his angels.
When we say: Give us this day our daily bread, in saying this day we mean “in this world.” Here we ask for a sufficiency by specifying the most important part of it; that is, we use the word “bread” to stand for everything. Or else we are asking for the sacrament of the faithful, which is necessary in this world, not to gain temporal happiness but to gain the happiness that is everlasting.
When we say: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, we are reminding ourselves of what we must ask and what we must do in order to be worthy in turn to receive.
When we say: Lead us not into temptation, we are reminding ourselves to ask that his help may not depart from us; otherwise we could be seduced and consent to some temptation, or despair and yield to it.
When we say: Deliver us from evil, we are reminding ourselves to reflect on the fact that we do not yet enjoy the state of blessedness in which we shall suffer no evil. This is the final petition contained in the Lord’s Prayer, and it has a wide application. In this petition the Christian can utter his cries of sorrow, in it he can shed his tears, and through it he can begin, continue and conclude his prayer, whatever the distress in which he finds himself. Yes, it was very appropriate that all these truths should be entrusted to us to remember in these very words.”
On the summit of the Esquiline Hill, a short distance from the Lateran Basilica, the church of St. Mary Major was begun in the early 5th century and completed by Pope Sixtus III (432-440.)
Hardly a good time to build a church. In 410, Alaric and his Goths shocked the Roman world by sacking a city all thought invincible. In 455 the Vandals under Genseric vandalized Rome. Twice more in the century other barbarian tribes invaded.
The English historian Edward Gibbon called this period a time of decline and fall. In far off Palestine St. Jerome cried out in disbelief at Rome’s misfortunes. In Africa St. Augustine replied to the followers of Rome’s traditional religions, who said Christian weakness caused the city’s devastation, by writing his treatise “The City of God.”
Christians were not the cause the city’s misfortunes, the saint said; two loves are at work in the world building two cities. One love builds an evil city; Christianity builds the City of God, promoting love and justice, even in hard times .
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is honored in this church. In 431, the Council of Ephesus repudiated Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, for refusing to call her “Mother of God.” The title safeguarded Christian belief in the mystery of the Incarnation: Jesus is God and man, the council said. The Christian world saw Mary as a defender of Jesus, her son, who was both human and divine.
Devotion to Mary ran high in the Christian world after the council, and churches dedicated to her arose everywhere. In the city of Constantinople alone, 250 churches and shrines in her honor were built before the 8th century. Pictures, icons of Mary holding her divine child multiplied, especially in churches of the East, where they became objects of special devotion.
Mary’s title, Mother of God, does not make her a goddess, otherwise how could she have given birth to Christ who is truly human? Yet, she can be called Mother of God, because Jesus who is truly her human son is truly Son of God from all eternity as well.
St. Mary Major was not built just as a doctrinal statement, however, it also shored up the spirits of frightened Christians who lived in dangerous times. On its walls stories from the Old and New Testaments called for courage and hope. God’s plan does not lead to decline and fall, they say, but to triumph in Christ.
In this church, Mary is Jesus’ mother and closest disciple. This place is “a school of Mary” – to use a phrase of Pope John Paul II–who teaches the mysteries she has learned.
She is a leading figure in the sacred stories depicted here and is joined by a noticeable number of women from the Old and New Testaments who like her seem powerless, but are empowered by God.
The great 13th century mosaic in the church’s apse of Mary crowned by Jesus Christ as heaven’s queen proclaims God’s triumph in her, but also his triumph in the church as well. She is taken up to heaven “to be the beginning and pattern of the church in its perfection, and a sign of hope and comfort for your people on their pilgrim way.” (Preface of the Assumption)
It shouldn’t surprise us that many of the mysteries in which Mary had a special role were first celebrated here as liturgical feasts. The Christmas liturgy, especially the midnight Mass on December 25th , began in this church in the 5th century and spread to other churches of the west. Early on, a replica of the cave under the church of the Nativity at Bethlehem, the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, was constructed here. After the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land in the 7th century, Christian refugees placed relics here purported to be from the crib that bore the Christ Child and relics of St.Matthew, an evangelist who told the story of Jesus birth.
Besides the Christmas liturgy, other great Marian feasts, such as her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, developed their liturgical forms in this church.
Built on a hill where all could see it, near Rome’s eastern walls so often threatened by barbarian armies, St. Mary Major affirms Christianity’s ultimate answer to its enemies. It is not military might, but the power of faith and love that triumphs in the end.
Visiting St.Mary Major
The church’s 18th century façade was built by the popes to enhance the appearance of this important church at a time when many visitors, especially from England and Germany, were traveling to Rome on the Grand Tour to visit its classical and religious sites.
The church’s interior, with its splendid 5th century mosaics along the upper part of the nave, retains its original form better than any other of the major basilicas of Rome.
The Sistine Chapel at the right hand side of the nave was built to house a silver reliquary with relics of the crib brought from the Holy Land in the 8th century. Two popes, Sixtus V and Pius V are buried there.
The Borghese Chapel at the left hand side of the nave honors the ancient icon of the Virgin and Child,”Salus populist Romani”, that Roman Christians have reverenced for centuries. A reproduction of the icon is a nice remembrance to bring home.
The magnificent 13th century mosaic in the apse of the basilica presents the Coronation of Mary in heaven. It’s surrounded by 5th century mosaics depicting scenes from the birth of Jesus and the life of Mary.
The sky over the boardwalk at Spring Lake, New Jersey, is sometimes swept with colors before nightfall. Then, a lamp is the only light till dawn.
“Light came into the world,” our gospel from John says today,
“but people preferred darkness to light,
because their works were evil.
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light
and does not come toward the light,
so that his works might not be exposed.
But whoever lives the truth comes to the light,
The sun will rise again and the great Sun will also rise again, Augustine says in one of his beautiful sermons. Then “lamps will no longer be needed. When that day is at hand, the prophet will not be read to us, the book of the Apostle will not be opened, we shall not require the testimony of John, we shall have no need of the Gospel itself. Therefore all Scriptures will be taken away from us, those Scriptures which in the night of this world burned like lamps so that we might not remain in darkness.”
Darkness is temporary; we are meant for light.
“I implore you to love with me and, by believing, to run with me; let us long for our heavenly country, let us sigh for our heavenly home, let us truly feel that here we are strangers. What shall we then see? Let the gospel tell us: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. You will come to the fountain, with whose dew you have already been sprinkled.
“Instead of the ray of light which was sent through slanting and winding ways into the heart of your darkness, you will see the light itself in all its purity and brightness. It is to see and experience this light that you are now being cleansed. Dearly beloved, John himself says, we are the sons of God, and it has not yet been disclosed what we shall be; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.
“I feel that your spirits are being raised up with mine to the heavens above; but the body which is corruptible weighs down the soul, and this earthly tent burdens the thoughtful mind. I am about to lay aside this book, and you are soon going away, each to his own business. It has been good for us to share the common light, good to have enjoyed ourselves, good to have been glad together. When we part from one another, let us not depart from him.”
The creation story of cosmic and human origins in Genesis is shrouded in mystery, enigma, and impenetrable conundrums. The first chapter poetically captures the goodness, beauty and delight taken by the Creator God in the heavens and the earth, culminating in his “rest” (shabath) on the seventh day as in a temple. The second chapter develops the story of human origins in particular and also sets up the conflict and plot to follow. As soon as the two trees of life and knowledge are pointed out to Adam, the possibility of death is introduced.
You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. From that tree you shall not eat; when you eat from it you shall die.
The tree of knowledge of good and evil is enigmatic at this point, for “evil” would have been meaningless in a world fresh from the Creator’s hand. A limitation set on human freedom did not detract from the goodness of creation, for it was a gift to exercise Adam’s trust and love and bring him to maturity.
Will Adam pass the test? At this point, God observes something wanting in Adam: “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).
After Adam names the animals, none of whom are “a helper suited” to him, God casts him into a deep sleep, “and while he was asleep, he took out one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh” (Genesis 2:21).
The Lord God then built the rib that he had taken from the man into a woman. When he brought her to the man, the man said:
“This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; This one shall be called ‘woman,’ for out of man this one has been taken.”
Adam, who was one, is now physically two. Yet “male and female” were already in the single nature of Adam before Eve was taken out of his side.
St. Ephrem the Syrian (fl. 363-373) writes:
God then brought her to Adam, who was both one and two. He was one in that he was Adam, and he was two because he had been created male and female.1
St. Ephrem’s intuition is confirmed by Christology, the apex of Christian anthropology. John’s Prologue states that “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). The Greek word for flesh (sarx) translates the Hebrew word for flesh (basar) in Genesis 2:24 of the Greek Septuagint (LXX). The New American Bible (Revised Edition) translates basar as “body,” but offers the alternative “flesh” in its footnote.
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body (flesh).
The implication is that Christ, the second person of the Trinity, in assuming “flesh,” assumed both halves of humankind at once, plus all living beings, which are encompassed in the idea of sarx.
The text of Genesis does not elaborate on why it was “not good” for Adam to remain as he was, but the task of cultivating the garden and securing the fruit of the tree of life now became the joint vocation of Adam and Eve.
Psalm 128:3 evokes garden imagery to express the goodness of the home and family, a sacred space like Eden:
Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the recesses of your home; Your children like olive plants around your table.
Jesus Christ (second Adam) and the Blessed Virgin Mary (second Eve) are the ultimate answers given in the course of salvation history, for together they overcame evil and gained access to the tree of life for all living beings. The vocation of Adam and Eve to become “one flesh” and integrate the cosmos in their humanity was accomplished by Jesus and Mary virginally. Ultimately, the story is “good” because freedom, love, trust and obedience were perfected in our humanity.
Within the cosmic temple, Adam is a microcosmic temple—a dwelling place for God, the temple’s essence. Temple imagery appears in the creation of Eve from Adam’s “rib,” for the Hebrew word for rib (tsela) also refers to the side chambers of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:5), Ezekiel’s visionary temple (Ezekiel 41:5), and the side of the tabernacle (Exodus 26:20).
As Adam and Eve compose the temple of God, Christ and the Church compose the temple of the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father (Ephesians 2:19-22).
Many patristic commentators reflect that as Eve was taken out of the side of Adam, the Church came forth from the side of Christ on the Cross.
St. Augustine (354-430):
Even in the beginning, when woman was made from a rib in the side of the sleeping man, that had no less a purpose than to symbolize prophetically the union of Christ and his Church. Adam’s sleep was a mystical foreshadowing of Christ’s death, and when his dead body hanging from the cross was pierced by the lance, it was from his side that there issued forth that blood and water that as we know, signifies the sacraments by which the Church is built up. “Built” is the very word the Scripture uses in connection with Eve: “He built the rib into a woman.” …So too St. Paul speaks of “building up the body of Christ,” which is his Church. Therefore woman is as much the creation of God as man is. If she was made from the man, this was to show her oneness with him; and if she was made in the way she was, this was to prefigure the oneness of Christ and the Church.3
Quodvultdeus (fl. 430):
The great mystery is that Adam hopes after receiving the promise. He sees that the spouse in whom he believed is now united to him. Therefore he symbolically announces to us that through faith the Church will be the mother of humankind. It is evident that since Eve had been created from the side of the sleeping Adam, he has foreseen that from the side of Christ hanging on the cross the Church, which is in truth the mother of the whole new humankind, must be created.4
St. Ambrose (c. 333-397):
If the union of Adam and Eve is a great mystery in Christ and in the Church, it is certain that as Eve was bone of the bones of her husband and flesh of his flesh, we also are members of Christ’s body, bones of his bones and flesh of his flesh.5
If all Scripture speaks of Christ,6 Psalm 128:3 is the voice of the Bridegroom about his Bride, “the wife of the Lamb.”7 The poem evokes the children of God the Father around the Eucharistic table:
Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the recesses of your home; Your children like olive plants around your table.
The resurrection of Christ and the assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary reclothed Adam and Eve in their robe of glory at their “wedding.”
The man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame.
They were not ashamed because of the glory with which they were clothed.
St. Ephrem the Syrian8
Asleep in the garden, Eve emerged from Adam’s side— His perfect companion, Most beloved friend and bride.
Awake in Gethsemane, Prayed Adam for his wife. In a grove of olive trees, His life pledged for her life.
Asleep on the Tree of Life, The Church flowed from Jesus’ side— Blood and water from the temple, Divine life to save his Bride.
1 St. Ephrem the Syrian, Commentary on Genesis 2.12. From Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Genesis 1-11, Andrew Louth and Marco Conti, editors, and Thomas C. Oden, general editor (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 69.
The Ancient Christian Commentary footnote explains: “Before Eve, Adam was two in that Eve was already implicitly within him. After Eve was created, he was two because he had been created male and female. Yet in all this duality he did not cease to be a single person, hence one.”
There is ambiguity in this explanation concerning the notions of “person” and “nature.” Based on Trinitarian anthropology, the nature of the universal Adam is one, but persons are multiple. Neither St. Ephrem nor the Ancient Christian Commentary footnoteaddresses whether Adam and Eve are unique “persons.” Current theological anthropology is still ambiguous on distinctions between person, nature and individual. Since humankind is materially divisible yet metaphysically one, the conundrum is magnified. In the case of Adam’s division, St. Ephrem intuits the simultaneity of duality and unity, but has not hardened them into concepts.
2 See New American Bible (Revised Edition) footnote for other references.
3 St. Augustine, City of God 22.17. From Ibid., 71.
4 Quodvultdeus, Book of Promises and Predictions of God 1.3. From Ibid.
5 St. Ambrose, Letters to Laymen 85. From Ibid.
6 “All Sacred Scripture is but one book, and that one book is Christ, because all divine Scripture speaks of Christ, and all divine Scripture is fulfilled in Christ.” From Catechism of the Catholic Church 134, quoting Hugh of St. Victor.
7 Revelation 21:9.
8 St. Ephrem the Syrian, Commentary on Genesis 2.14.2. From Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Genesis 1-11, Andrew Louth and Marco Conti, editors, and Thomas C. Oden, general editor (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 72.
We follow the Feast of Christmas with the feasts of St. Stephen and St. John, two saints who point to the meaning of this mystery:
“Yesterday we celebrated the birth in time of our eternal King. Today we celebrate the triumphant suffering of his soldier. Yesterday our king, clothed in his robe of flesh, left his place in the virgin’s womb and graciously visited the world. Today his soldier leaves the tabernacle of his body and goes triumphantly to heaven.
” Our king, despite his exalted majesty, came in humility for our sake; yet he did not come empty-handed. He brought his soldiers a great gift that not only enriched them but also made them unconquerable in battle, for it was the gift of love, which was to bring men to share in his divinity. He gave of his bounty, yet without any loss to himself. In a marvellous way he changed into wealth the poverty of his faithful followers while remaining in full possession of his own inexhaustible riches.
“And so the love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven; shown first in the king, it later shone forth in his soldier. Love was Stephen’s weapon by which he gained every battle, and so won the crown signified by his name. His love of God kept him from yielding to the ferocious mob; his love for his neighbour made him pray for those who were stoning him. Love inspired him to reprove those who erred, to make them amend; love led him to pray for those who stoned him, to save them from punishment. Strengthened by the power of his love, he overcame the raging cruelty of Saul and won his persecutor on earth as his companion in heaven.
( St. Fulgentius of Ruspe, on the Feast of St. Stephen)
We celebrate the feast of St. John, the apostle, on December 27th because he sees the Risen Christ from his birth till his death on Calvary. John writes that we might rejoice. ” We write this to you to make your joy complete – complete in that fellowship, in that love and in that unity.” John’s letters and gospel are read at Mass on the days that follow the Feast of Christmas.
Concepts, words, images, and language all derive from spacetime. Concepts about God are like dotted lines attempting to outline formlessness. They take us to the precipice of human knowing beyond which we plunge into docta ignorantia (“learned ignorance”), in the words of the 15th century German philosopher, theologian and mystic Nicholas of Cusa. Infinity is indefinable.
He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:12-14).
The royal heart gives without any thought of return. The motto, “Do something for nothing,” has become popular because the human heart senses its true nobility in selflessness.
Jesus’ heavenly banquet is populated by outcasts and defective persons. Who, but the followers of Christ, are the poor, maimed, lame and blind who are unable to repay the infinite debt to the Father for the gift of eternal life through his Son? The Father is our generous and bountiful host.
One of those at table with Jesus said to him, “Blessed is the one who will dine in the Kingdom of God” (Luke 14:15).
More literally translated, “Blessed is the one who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” One of the guests caught Jesus’ eschatological wavelength and alluded to the messianic banquet, a familiar Hebrew motif. Jesus challenged his pleasant reverie with a new parable.
He replied to him, “A man gave a great dinner to which he invited many. When the time for the dinner came, he dispatched his servant to say to those invited, ‘Come, everything is now ready’ (Luke 14:16-17).
Historians conjecture that ancient Palestinians sent out preliminary invitations without a fixed date, and once the banquet was ready, sent a servant to summon the guests.
But one by one, they all began to excuse themselves. The first said to him, ‘I have purchased a field and must go to examine it; I ask you, consider me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have purchased five yoke of oxen and am on my way to evaluate them; I ask you, consider me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have just married a woman, and therefore I cannot come.’ The servant went and reported this to his master (Luke 14:18-21a).
Refusals by a farmer, a peasant, and a newlywed round out the story. All three invitees have better things to do than attend the banquet of their friend. As with the rich fool (Luke 12:16-21), they are preoccupied with earthly cares and secondary goods. Care of property, possessions, and marriage and family are all good in themselves, but become the enemy of the highest good when enthroned as monarch of the heart.
Then the master of the house in a rage commanded his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in here the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame’ (Luke 14:21b).
Implied in these words are that the rich and strong, the seeing and sturdy, have no desire to partake of the banquet. Aware only of finite desires, they seek satisfaction in finite goods that can be seized and seen. But the poor, crippled, blind and lame are interiorly aware of their infinite hunger and thirst for communion with the Infinite God. In relation to the infinite, human persons are indeed poor, crippled, blind and lame: “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him” (I Corinthians 2:9; Isaiah 64:3).
The servant reported, ‘Sir, your orders have been carried out and still there is room.’ The master then ordered the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedgerows and make people come in that my home may be filled. For, I tell you, none of those men who were invited will taste my dinner’” (Luke 14:22-24).
After gathering a large number of willing guests, empty seats still remain in the banquet hall. The master sends his servant into the neglected byways of the town to attract outsiders to the feast. “Compel them to come in,” says the Greek (anagkazó), a word that was erroneously interpreted by St. Augustine to justify forced conversions. The bishop of Hippo became “the spiritual father of the Inquisition.”1 The three persons in the parable, however, are certainly not forced to accept the invitation.
Although the parable originated in an exchange with the lawyers and Pharisees, it is applicable to humankind in general. All are invited, but only the outcasts—poor, crippled, blind and lame—respond because they desire God (cf. Beatitudes in Luke 6:20-26; Matthew 5:3-10).
St. Cyril of Alexandria allegorized the parable to the entire arc of salvation history:
“We understand the man to be God the Father. For similes represent the truth but are not the truth itself. The Creator of the universe and the Father of glory made a great supper, a festival for the whole world, in honor of Christ. In the last times of the world and at our world’s setting, the Son rose for us. At this time, he suffered death for our sakes and gave us to eat his flesh, the bread from heaven that gives life to the world. Toward evening and by the light of torches, the lamb was also sacrificed according to the law of Moses. With good reason, the invitation that is by Christ is called a supper.”2
Jesus’ banquet parable challenges us to evaluate our highest priorities. Does God, truth, goodness, and beauty compel our hearts beyond all earthly striving? What is our highest love?
1 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1985, p. 1057.
2 St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke, Homily 104.
After two thousand years, we are still grappling with the depths of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper. Yet after only a few minutes, the disciples come forth with the glib response, “Now you are talking plainly, and not in any figure of speech. Now we realize that you know everything and that you do not need to have anyone question you. Because of this we believe that you came from God.”
The disciples are so far from understanding Jesus’ words, St. Augustine once commented, “that they do not even understand their own lack of understanding his words.”
Real conviction is not only in words but in deeds. Later that evening, Peter will declare with false confidence that even if he has to die with Jesus, he will not deny him. We know the outcome of that statement. Jesus knows our hearts better than we do. He tells them that the hour has arrived when they will scatter and leave him alone.
“But I am not alone, because the Father is with me.” Whether Jesus is praying in the mountains in solitude, or tied up like a criminal in a mob, he is not alone. His eternal Sonship is primordial, immutable, and interminable. Remaining ever in the Father’s Womb, he began to be in time in the Virgin’s womb at the moment of conception. The mystery of the Incarnation is ensconced within the mystery of the Trinity.
“Show us the Father,” Philip had asked earlier, but the only answer he received was, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” The Divine Persons dwell within one another in an ineffable manner beyond space, time, and all categories of thought. The amazing thing is that Jesus has come to bring us also into this communion. If this is taken seriously, at no moment are we ever alone. To be a person is to be in communion, even in physical solitude. The indwelling of the Trinity is wholly interior—we are “temples of the Holy Spirit”—though its love radiates and can even be visible as at the Transfiguration.
“I have told you this so that you might have peace in me. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.”
The last thing the disciples expected of their great hero and conqueror was his crucifixion.
Gaze upon a flower for one minute and observe its movement. It appears to be still, but it is constantly changing, growing or fading. The wind blows and it sways. Light and shadows flicker continuously so that it appears in a slightly different shade every second. A moment passed cannot be recaptured. Impermanence is the mark of our human experience.
Yet “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee” (St. Augustine). We yearn for permanence and eternity, which Jesus now promises to his grieving disciples: “But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take that joy away from you.”
At the Ascension, Jesus takes our Body—humanity and the cosmos transfigured—into communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In Christ we are destined for a joy that nothing on earth can destroy.