|Entrance to Abbey Church, Holy Cross Monastery, Berryville, VA|
In recent weeks, the Gospel reading for the day has been taken from what is sometimes called the "farewell discourse" of Jesus in the Gospel of John, chapters 14, 15, and 16.
Many classic verses are found here. "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (14:6). "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (14:9). "I am the vine; you are the branches... apart from me you can do nothing" (15:5). Then there are those words about His gift of His peace, and bearing abundant fruit, and exhortations to "abide in Him" and "keep His commands," and especially "this is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you" (5:12).
This part of the Gospel is so rich; indeed it is quite overwhelming. It takes about twenty minutes at the very least to read the three chapters continuously with attention. I should know. For almost a decade my spiritual father was an old Cistercian monk at Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia. Fr. Edward died in 2012, and at some point I will have to devote a post to him and the very great blessing he was for me and my family in times past. Right now, I mention him because he always gave the same penance for confession: the prayerful reading of John 14-16.
This seems like a bit more of a time-and-effort investment than most "standard" confessional penances, but I am grateful for the frequent reading of this text, which has taught me a little how to listen to it and dwell with it.
The "discourse" is a profound exchange between Jesus and the disciples. As is so often the case, however, the disciples don't understand. Jesus uses these great images that are familiar to us, but the disciples are confused. Jesus speaks of Himself, His Father, the Spirit, the world, and the disciples themselves, but they are not sure what he means by all of it.
When we read these texts, we are dazzled by their depth and inspired by all the often-heard themes. Still, perhaps we sympathize with the disciples in a certain way.
Maybe we have studied the Bible for years, but do we really "get it"?
"We do not know what he is talking about" (16:18) the disciples are saying near the end of chapter 16. Two thousand years later, we can still appreciate their perplexity. We too may wonder, "What is He talking about?"
We have the benefit of the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ after the resurrection and Pentecost, as well as the development of doctrine, the tradition and the Fathers, the teaching of Christ's Church, many good modern commentaries, and our own prayerful reading in the light of the Holy Spirit. These resources assist us, but the heart of the text remains an awesome and beautiful mystery, and it brings us more and more to a simple gaze full of silence, adoration, and love. We are drawn to "abide" in Him, and allow Him to dwell in us, with the Father and the Spirit.
Here is one of the powerful moments in the New Testament when we encounter the Infinite Mystery made flesh, the One whose presence is decisive for the destiny of every human person.
Within the narrative, however, the disciples remain confused.
But just then comes a moment in the text when the clouds seem to open for them. Jesus says something that strikes the disciples in a different way, that breaks through and appears clearly, even if only for a moment, in their minds and hearts.
"I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father. On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God" (16:25-27).
And then He says a single verse that sounds like something He has already said many times. Yet this time it stands out; it seems to touch the disciples for the first time in all its richness. If we ponder it for awhile, we might be touched by it too. Jesus says:
"I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father" (16:28).
The hitherto bewildered disciples seem suddenly awakened by these words. Perhaps they don't know what they are saying, and yet they are impressed with a luminous certainty, as if they are standing before Jesus transfigured. They are greatly consoled and illuminated. Suddenly they rejoice, and cry out with a newly found joy.
"His disciples said, 'Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God'" (16:29-30).
Perhaps we reach this point and wonder what we've missed. What did Jesus say that suddenly made it all clear?
I wonder if these words might indicate the very heart of the matter. The Eternal Mystery -- source and fulfillment of all things -- is the Holy Trinity, in which the Son is eternally generated by the Father. And the Father and the Son eternally breathe forth the Holy Spirit. The Trinity is, of course, the transcendent, "super-dynamic" and "always" realization of the exchange and overflow of Love, a mystery that transcends words like "coming" and "going."
Yet this is why the Son of the Father has been made flesh. Jesus has come into the world above all to reveal and glorify the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the mystery of the God who is Eternal Love. "I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father."
Earlier in the discourse, Jesus told them, "If I do not go, the Advocate [the Spirit] will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you" (16:7). Now He appears to be synthesizing everything in a few words that refer to His "coming-from-the-Father" and His "going-[returning]-to-the-Father."
Perhaps these words open the hearts of the disciples to Jesus's relation to the Father in the Spirit. Perhaps they grasp for a moment His whole mission: He who is forever generated from the Father is sent by the Father into the world to "open up" the life of God so that those who adhere to Him might share that life through Him, so that they might be raised up into the Father's glory in the Holy Spirit.
The Voice and the Dove at Jesus's baptism. The luminous Glory of Tabor and the Voice again. Transfiguration. Infinite Love who is Father, Son, and Spirit, revealing His Trinitarian mystery and freely pouring forth His glory and His love and His mercy upon the world.
Is this what stirred the ardor of the disciples and drew forth for a moment their joyful affirmation of faith?
Still, in the "farewell discourse," Jesus knows that His coming-and-going has not yet reached its definitive moment. The Cross remains before Him:
Jesus answered them, "Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!" (16:31-33)