God Triumphant: Reflections on the Church After Calvary
Watching And Waiting In Jerusalem
Jesus had left this earth and the Spirit had not yet come. In the Acts of the Apostles (1:10 ff.) we are told that after Christ disappeared from Mount Olivet, his disciples stood around for a while gazing up to the sky. Finally, Jesus had to send two angels to tell them to go back to Jerusalem. Nothing more was going to happen. Jesus was not going to return for a while. They were on their own. The Holy Spirit would come to them eventually but for the time-being they could do nothing but wait. And so they did. Fouard suggests that their return was "filled with emotion", looking forward to fulfillment of Christ's promises, but they were still too "earth-bound to understand what those promises meant". (1)
The community that gathered to wait in Jerusalem included the eleven remaining Apostles (after Judas's defection) and many others. The Acts of the Apostles (1:13-14) lists the 11 Apostles present as being: Peter, John, James, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James (the son of Alphaeus), Simon, (the Zealot party member), and Judas son of James. Jesus' mother Mary was there along with the holy women who had been with Jesus for years. Also present were some of Jesus's "brothers" (cousins). During the week other disciples joined the small community of Christians until they numbered 120, so intimately joined in friendship that Peter addressed them simply as "My Brothers" (Acts, 1: 15-16)..
It is not surprising that Mary was there. She had been and continued to be the one human closest to Jesus. She was also the only one there who was without sin. It was fitting too that other holy women were there. After all, it was women who (with John) stood beneath the cross of the dying Jesus. It was women who received his dead body from the cross and prepared it for burial. Women were the first witnesses to the empty tomb, the first to tell the doubting Apostles what had happened. Mary Magdalene was the first to actually see Jesus after his resurrection. As far as we know, no women denied that they knew Jesus as Peter had done in the Garden of Gethsemani. Women did not run away in fear as the Apostles had done on that same evening. Unlike John (who eventually returned to stand with them under the cross) women never asked for themselves a special place of honor in heaven. It was fitting, then, that faithful women be equal members of that first Christian Community. The men seemed to recognize this. Unlike the practice they were used to in the Temple and Synagogue, the men had no problem praying together with women as they waited for the coming of the Holy Spirit upon them all.
It was a quiet time. That first Christian community made hardly a ripple in the day-by-day life of Jerusalem. As Fouard observes:
Lively as were their holy hopes, nothing of all this had become known in the world outside. The little band gathered in the upper-room was too obscure a character to attract attention; as for the Galilean (Jesus), the rumors of his resurrection were slowly dying away. (3)
Although those first Christians must have been joyful anticipating what was to come, this time of waiting must also have been a bit hard on them. For the first time they had the experience of having "Jesus" apparently far away, leaving them with no clear indication of what would happen to them when the mysterious Holy Spirit finally came to them. There was nothing special going on. There were no miracles being performed. Their daily tasks were ordinary events like those in all our lives ... eating, washing dishes, taking out the garbage, paying bills, talking to friends, praying, sitting in silence waiting for something to happen. It was a prophecy of what Christian life would be like in the future.
During these days after the Ascension, that little community was challenged by the task of Christians ever after: the task of waiting in faith and hope for the inspiration of God.
I do not doubt that during those days between Ascension and Pentecost that first Christian community celebrated Mass as part of their common prayer, but it was no great event ... probably there was no special decoration, no incense, no great songs, and no special sermons. When they prayed early in the morning, there was no great exaltation. They were probably just tired. They certainly did not "speak in tongues". That would come to some only later after the Holy Spirit had entered them. Like the rest of us, they probably did not talk much at all at least until they had their morning coffee.
Jesus had gone. The Spirit had not yet come. The Church celebrated the first of many ordinary days ... the ordinary days on which it would later convert the world ... days without miracles, days of ordinary living lives dedicated to Christ. The visible Jesus had left the Church. The infant Church had suddenly been forced to grow up and sit patiently waiting for God to show it the way.
A Reflection On Christ's Leaving
On the verge of long-term leavings (especially the "leaving" that is death), we feel a need to sum up our previous life for those we love. We have a desire to tell our loved ones how to live the rest of their lives without our physical presence. After we have gone the only way to touch us is by faith and hope and love. There is no phone number for the place where we are going. Once we go away for that last time, our loved ones will have great difficulty getting in contact with us. Even when they know where we are, all lines of communication are broken.
Even before death "snaps the silver cord" (Ecclesiastes 12:6) separations from loved ones can be very final. We send them cards and letters but get no response, signs that they have moved on and have lost contact with us. There are no phone-lines able to be strung between such separated hearts.
Of course death is the ultimate separation. As death approaches, we feel a great need to tell our loves what they meant to us and what we hope for them in the future. In this Jesus was no different from the rest of us. Like us he saw no need to make world-shaking statements to his friends when they left for only a few days. For instance when they went out on their first missionary journey for him, his instruction were very simple. He told them to take only one tunic, no wallet, no bread, to take a staff and wear sandals, to stay with friends and leave when they became a burden. (See Mark 6:8) As the disciples left on their short missions, Jesus did not try to preach to them about the meaning of their lives.
But when Jesus was on the verge of his final leaving from earth, his words became more momentous. He tried to tell his human friends how to cope with the long days ahead -- the days when he would no longer be visible to them. His words to his disciples were something like his last will and testament. He said:
Remain in union with me, and I will remain in union with you. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me will bear much fruit. You can do nothing without me. Whoever does not remain in me is thrown out like a branch and dries up. Such branches are gathered up and thrown into the fire where they are burned.
I love you just as the Father loved me; remain in my love. If you obey my commands you will remain in my love. This is my commandment: love one another, just as I love you. The greatest love we can have for our friends is to give our life for them, and you are my friends if you do what I command. You did not choose me. I chose you and appointed you to go and bear much fruit, the kind of fruit that endures. This, then, is what I command you: love one another!
These are some of Jesus' last words to his friends. These are also words directed to people like me and you. How should I respond? How should this somewhat withered branch respond to its supporting vine? Certainly with gratitude. For some reason he chose me to be part of his life. He made me to be. He made me to be part of him. He made me to know that I was part of him. He tells me that if only I stay attached, I will live his vibrant life forever. But I can mess up. And thus I must also respond to his message with fearful caution. I am a strange branch. I have the power to cut away from my vine. I have the power to choose to reject the roots that nourish me. I can isolate myself by withdrawing my love from those around me. Silly branch! ... I can pretend that I can live on my own. But it can only be pretense because no branch has a leg to stand on.
The Lord is now nowhere to be seen, but he told me and you that he never leaves. I am his branch. I am his arm and his leg. He walks in me through the world I face each day. He works through me bringing hope and joy and patience to the people I meet each day. I must work for him. He warns me not just to sit back and rejoice in being a branch. I must not spend so much time rejoicing in my roots that I neglect to bear fruit.
Of course the Lord is the one who produces the fruit on this withered branch, but I must keep my life open to his power. It will not always be easy. Sometimes the movement of the Lord through my life can be painful. But the pain must be borne because it is a sign of his life in me.
My life (and yours too) is filled with hope but life is still a struggle. There are so many things tearing us away from Jesus! We need help. Jesus knew that and as he came close to his final "leaving" he prayed for us. It is a prayer well-suited for friends who must live in this world "after Christ":
Now I am coming to you, O Holy Father. I have made you known to the people you gave me out of the world. Keep them safe. I do not ask you to take them out of the world, but I do ask you to keep them safe from the evil one. I pray that they may all be one, O Father! May they be one in us just as you are in me and I am in you. You have given them to me. I want them to be with me where I am in order that the love you have for me may be in them ... in order that I myself may dwell in them.
He made that prayer for us and then he made this promise to us:
Anyone who loves me will be true to my word, and my Father will love him; and we will come to him and make our dwelling place with him always.
John 14: 23 ff.
Jesus has left this earth physically. But he now lives in every human being who is trying to discover and do the will of God. Jesus lives in heaven now but he also lives deep inside every human heart struggling to reach its God.
It is for this reason that Jesus said to us as he left:
"Peace" is my farewell to you!
I leave you with my peace!
(1) Abbé Constant Fouard, Saint Peter and the First Years of Christianity, trans by George F.X. Griffith, (New York and London: Longmans, Green, and Co. 1892), p. 1.
(2) Fouard (op. cit., p. 2) identifies these cousins a being those mentioned by Mark (6:3), namely James, Joses, Jude, and Simon, the sons of Alpheus and Mary, the sister of the Blessed Virgin.
(3) op. cit., p. 5.
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