The Gospel for May 2nd, 2016: The Sixth Sunday of Easter
Today’s gospel from John is part of Jesus’s discourse with the apostles at the Last Supper. With this conversation, Jesus is preparing His disciples to understand the events to come: His death and resurrection, His ascension to Heaven, and the descent of the Holy Spirit. We celebrate all these events as integral parts of the Easter season. Next Sunday, we will remember the Solemnity of the Ascension, the feast of Christ’s return to Heaven specifically. While I have comprehended the significance of the resurrection as Christ’s victory over sin and death through most I my life, the ascension has always been harder to wrap my mind around. On one level, it is reasonable to accept it as one of the necessary steps in the salvation plan that is a mystery. However, I recently watched a Word on Fire video by Bishop Robert Barron on Youtube which sheds light on why it may be difficult for many contemporary people to fully appreciate the significance of the Ascension and Pentecost. Although I will not try to summarize all the details of his talk, “Why the Ascension of Jesus Matters,” I would highly recommend viewing the eight minute video and will reflect on today’s gospel in light of its content.
Probably like many Christians, I had always viewed the Ascension as a trip Jesus takes from Earth to Heaven, two entirely separate realms. This is a symptom of a modern, scientific thinking that tends to separate ideas into categories, parts, and schemes with its roots in the Aristotelian philosophy of ancient Greece. Such a world view naturally leads to Heaven and Earth as distinct categories and a view of salvation as existing in one place or the other (or in Hell as a third place). I always believed that if saved, my soul would leave Earth and move to Heaven (with no forwarding address for mail). Bishop Barron claims the ancient Jews did not view Heaven and Earth with a dichotomous understanding. Instead they viewed both as an interconnected part of God’s creation. In this view, one does not escape to the salvation of Heaven, but rather salvation purifies Earth and its people, bringing them more closely into God’s everlasting glory.
I think a helpful analogy is to imagine God and His creation as a beautiful quilt. Through the fall of humankind and its sin, so the quilt has become stained and the stitching is coming out. The patches appear at risk of falling off. Nevertheless, they are still connected and enjoy life in the quilt. They just need to be washed and repaired to more fully reflect the wondrous glory of the rest of the quilt. God who loves the entire quilt sends first Israel and then Jesus to work on the washing and repair job.
To continue this analogy, the ascension and descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, function to repair stitching by running thread back and forth from the unblemished part of the quilt, Heaven, to the soiled, damaged patches. Jesus brings the thread down in His incarnation; teaches believers how to help with repair and cleaning on the patches; runs the thread back to Heaven in His Ascension; and then sends the thread back again with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost which helps launch a full out repair and cleaning operation called the Church. The effect is a tighter interlacing which leads eventually to a seamless patchwork across the quilt. The restoration of the damaged patches means a state of peace and unity with the rest of God’s quilt.
Jesus reminds the Apostles in this reading, “I am going away and will come back to you. If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father; for the Father is greater than I” (John 14: 28). He is making it clear He is not abandoning his people, leaving them to relocate in Heaven. Instead, He is repairing the stitching, running the thread back to Heaven and sending the Holy Spirit with the thread back to them so that the perfect stitching of peace and unity may be restored. If we as damaged portions are to enjoy the greatness of the Father, we must be reconditioned to match the rest of the quilt. Of course the most exciting part of this reconditioning process is we, as Christ’s people and through the Holy Spirit and Church, are invited participate in and expedite this process. We help clean and stitch—or according to Jesus’s command, we love one another as He has loved us. The sooner we spread this love through the damaged patches, the sooner the restoration will be complete and God’s glory will course through the whole quilt.