Twenty-eighth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Readings: Acts 15:1-2, 22-29; Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23; John 14:23-29
In last week’s readings we discussed the idea of what is old becoming new, old patterns passing away and being renewed into something more fully itself, a creation more fully alive. The crux of that idea is, of course, the resurrection of Jesus, which we are still celebrating even six Sundays later. Jesus’ body was not destroyed but renewed, and united more intimately to His soul to become the firstborn of a renewed human family, one that reaches its divine destiny through Him. Even now, He makes all things new. But this week’s readings take a step back and explore what we might call the “ripple effects” of such a dramatic event. It’s one thing to say “I am reborn!” and quite another to realize what that means in day-to-day life. Yet it is something that the physical aspect of religion demands, especially a religion as “both/and” focused as the religion of the God-Man. How are we supposed to act as people made new co-existing within the daily realities of the old world? How is this impartial exercise of mercy, this ministry of reconciliation, this ambassadorship of Christ to be carried out?
The First Reading gives us a prime example of this struggle in a passage from the Acts of the Apostles detailing the event that has come to be known as the Council of Jerusalem. For the first time since the beginning, the Apostles had to come together and make a decision, not about what the message was – they already knew that well – but how it is to be applied in a given situation. In this case, the question was: must non-Jewish Christians be circumcised in accordance with the Law in order to benefit from the Redemption? Jesus, through His death and His rising, had fulfilled both the Law and the Prophets, of course. And the door had indeed been opened to the Gentiles (a.k.a., the non-Jews), first hinted at in the visit of the Magi and fully realized in the preaching of the Gospel. But did the Gentiles need to become obedient to the Law in order to benefit from its fulfillment? How was the commission to “make disciples of all nations” to be understood in the light of this question? In the end the Apostles decided not to place additional burdens upon Gentile Christians beyond abstinence from certain scandalous types of food and from unlawful marriage. How this decision was arrived at is not completely recorded, but what records we do have tell us it was no light and flimsy decision (see the rest of Acts 15 for details).
It is also described as “the decision of the Holy Spirit” as well as that of the Apostles – the same Holy Spirit that Jesus promised on the night before He died to send to the Apostles. The Gospel reading shows Jesus describing the Spirit as the One Who “will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” – a powerful ally, indeed, and One from Whom we may all benefit through the Sacrament of Confirmation. Even more telling, Jesus uses the word “Advocate” (Latin advocatus, Greek parakletos) to describe the Spirit, which literally means “one who is invited to provide assistance,” like a lawyer or other counselor. He is there to keep fresh in the mind and the heart all that Jesus taught and revealed about the Father and His Gospel, but His aid is not given without our consent. Just as God has allowed Man the free choice to obey or disobey His commands, and just as our Redemption consists of accepting or rejecting the sacrifice of Jesus, so too we must choose to ask the Holy Spirit for His aid or not to ask. And we are to do this not just for the big decisions but the small, everyday ones as well. Our constant dependence on God and His constant offer of help is the foundation and focus of our entire life and everything in it.
Our Second Reading ties these thoughts together in a big mystical bow with another passage from the Book of Revelation, this time describing the New Jerusalem itself. The visible locus of the new heaven and the new earth is surrounded by a great wall, with 12 gates and 12 types of stone – the gates represent the Tribes of Israel, and the stones represent the Apostles of Jesus. 12 is another of those numbers with symbolic meaning; just as 7 represents the union of 3 and 4, the numbers of heaven and earth, so 12 is the product of that union, being both three fours and four threes. Whether this is why the Tribes of Israel numbered 12 or the significance of the numbers was discerned only later in history, only God knows for sure. But it is almost certainly why Jesus chose 12 to be His Apostles – His Church is the renewed nation of Israel, of which He is King for ever and of whose kingdom there is no border. It is also why earlier in the Book of Revelation, as we saw a couple of weeks ago, there are 24 elders surrounding God’s throne – the old order of the Tribes of Israel, humanity’s gateway to God, united with and glorified by the new order of the Apostles of the Lamb, the foundation of His renewal of all creation. And within these walls and behind these gates dwells the Presence of God, just as it does in the midst of the 24 elders of the heavenly court: experienced directly and immediately, with “no temple in the city” and “no need of sun or moon.” The light of God’s constant Presence, once accepted and made a part of everyday life, is more than enough to illuminate even the most obscure of decisions.
At the beginning of the Second Vatican Council, 1900 years after the Council of Jerusalem, Pope Saint John XXIII stood at the altar of Saint Peter’s Basilica, above the tomb of the man for whom the basilica is named, the first man to hold the office of Bishop of Rome, and he led his brothers in the College of Bishops – successors of the Apostles all – in singing the ancient hymn Veni Creator Spiritus, to call down the Holy Spirit into that place and into the minds and hearts of everyone present, that He might direct them in charity and fidelity according to the will of God. That same opportunity is always available to those who have received His gifts of love and wisdom. He is always ready to remind of us of the will of the Father and the mind of the Son, for He proceeds from both. And when we celebrate His promised coming to the Apostles at Pentecost in just a couple of weeks, may we once again – or maybe for the first time! – accept the light and love He offers to aid us on our way.
Whoever cherishes Me will pay heed to My word,
and My Father will cherish him,
and We will come to him and make an abode with him.