by Br Julian McDonald
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God still, and trust in me…I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” John 14, 1-14
Many of us have had the privilege and the pain of being present at the death of someone whom we loved dearly and who, in turn, had loved us dearly. While we may or may not have remembered that person’s dying words, we will long remember the experience of pain, loss, grief, confusion, anger, gratitude or some or even all of those feelings. It is a decidedly different experience when someone we know in the prime of life gathers those he or she knows and loves and announces that death by violence for him or her is imminent.
Today’s gospel reading gives us an account of Jesus doing something like that in the presence of those who were near and dear to him. What he said left them very upset, and, probably, experiencing a whole range of feelings – confusion, fear, disappointment, panic, grief, emptiness, just to name a few of the possibilities. If they were shaken by the revelation that he was soon to die a violent death at the hands of those they all knew were intent on getting rid of him, they must have been shaken to the core at his announcement that he would be betrayed by one of the twelve whom he himself had selected to work with him, and that the one whom he had appointed to succeed him would soon disown him. Yet, without any hint of recrimination, blame or hostility, he calmly encouraged them to quell their fears and to trust in the goodness, compassion and love of the God about whom he had taught them so much.
All this is in the early part of Jesus’ long farewell address that John has brought together in chapters 13-17 of his Gospel. I suggest that, in appealing to his friends to remain calm, it is very significant that he urges them, at the outset, to trust – “Trust in God still and trust in me” ( John 14, 1). After all, trust in God, in Jesus and in one another is the very cement of every worthwhile relationship we have. Our relationships are the building blocks of our lives, and they would dissolve into dust without genuine trust.
In his efforts to quell their anxiety and to reassure them, Jesus explains that he is returning to God and that, in so doing, he is going to prepare a place there for them, too. The responses he gets from both Philip and Thomas serve to highlight that, even at this late stage, the apostles have still not grasped that he, Jesus, is the revelation, the sacrament of God. The most complete reflection and revelation of God that the apostles, we and our world will ever experience is Jesus himself. Thomas looks for a map and compass to plot the way to God, while Philip requests a special revelation of God, without realising that Jesus has been in the process of revealing every possible facet of God through his miracles (signs in John’s language) and preaching. John restrains himself by refusing to have Jesus mutter under his breath: “Dear God, will they ever get the message?”
Having assured them that they already know the way to the place where he is going, Jesus patiently responds in words of one syllable to Thomas’ request for a map and compass: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14, 6). Similarly, his response to Philip is all but in words of one syllable: “To have seen me is to have seen the Father, so how can you say: ‘Let us see the Father?’” (John 14, 9). For three whole years, everything Jesus had said and done was dedicated to revealing to everyone he encountered, especially those closest to him, who God really is. His words and actions were God’s words and actions. Moreover, he takes his message another step, explaining to the disciples that by imitating him, by expressing in their lives the relationship they have with him, they, in their turn, will take to their world the goodness, mercy, compassion and love of God. That, in our turn, is the privilege and responsibility with which we, too, have been entrusted. Today’s gospel is a clear reminder of that.
April 30 last week was the fifth anniversary of the death of the controversial Jesuit priest, Daniel Berrigan. He was controversial because he was an outspoken anti-war activist and a non-violent protester. He lived the Gospel with integrity and passion, and went to prison because of it. Berrigan also had a great way with words, writing and speaking with eloquence. One of his often-repeated pieces of advice to fellow Christians was “Know where you stand, and stand there.” He stood in vigorous opposition to the Vietnam War, and every war since then. Yet he was a man whose humanity went deep and whose affinity with the poor found very practical expression. He knew where he stood, stood there with determination, and paid the price, even the price of being disowned by many fellow Catholics. He once said: “If you are a Christian, you had better look good on wood”, and at another time: “Root yourself in Christ, and do the work that needs to be done with love, grace, courage and creativity day after Christian day.” He knew what Jesus meant when he said: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” and he reflected that in the way he lived life and gave it to others. In his book entitled Ten Commandments for the Long Haul he offers some guidelines for managing when things get tough. They might help us at this time when many of our tried and true supports are just not available:
* Call on Jesus when all else fails. Call on Him when all else succeeds (except that never happens).
* Don’t be afraid to be afraid or appalled to be appalled. How do you think the trees feel these days, or the whales, or, for that matter, most humans?
* Keep your soul to yourself. Soul is a possession worth paying for, they’re growing rarer. Learn from monks, they have secrets worth knowing.
* About practically everything in the world, there’s nothing you can do. This is Socratic wisdom. However, about a few things you can do something. Do it, with a good heart.
* On a long drive, there’s bound to be a dull stretch or two. Don’t go anywhere with someone who expects you to be interesting all the time. And don’t be hard on your fellow travellers. Try to smile after a coffee stop.
* Practically no one has the stomach to love you, if you don’t love yourself. They just endure. So do you.
* About healing: The gospels tell us that this was Jesus’ specialty and he was heard to say: “Take up your couch and walk!”
* When travelling on an airplane, watch the movie, but don’t use the earphones. Then you’ll be able to see what’s going on, but not understand what’s happening, and so you’ll feel right at home, little different than you do on the ground. (Well, that one’s out for most of us during these times.)
* Know that sometimes the only writing material you have is your own blood.
* Start with the impossible. Proceed calmly towards the improbable. No worry, there are at least five exits.