This week we will be remembering the events surrounding the arrest and execution of Christ. We need to supplement this troubling narration with St. John’s chapters 14 through 17 where we hear Jesus repeating words of comfort and reassurance to his disciples.
They know that danger lies ahead for their Lord. When Jesus had set his sights for Jerusalem, Thomas urged his brothers: “Let us go to die with him.” And of course, though they went with him, they certainly did not stay with him after he was arrested.
Nonetheless, Jesus is the one to offer strength and encouragement to his disciples. He is fully aware of their sense of loneliness, of their fear of being stranded in a hostile world that they, unlike their Master, are as yet ill-equipped to handle.
They have had only three years to work on understanding the deep mysteries their teacher patiently tried to explain. What did he mean about “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood”? What did he mean by saying that he existed before Abraham, and by describing himself in virtually blasphemous terms: I AM, and calling God his Father? No wonder he knew he would not be allowed to live much longer and teach such wild ideas.
Now, as they all wait in dread for the inevitable reality, they can’t keep their wits about them. The three leaders, Peter, James and John, can’t even stay awake at a time when their senses ought to be at their keenest. Peter: no rock there. Only bravado.
The words of Christ in those chapters of John are deeply personal as nowhere else in the Gospels. What is more, he emphasizes – of all things – the positive aspect of his final disgrace. Jesus speaks openly about his death and tries to console his friends by assuring them that he will, in a “little while,” come for them and take them to the home he will prepare for them with the Father.
He tells them how necessary this separation is and that he will not leave them orphans. As the evening progresses, Jesus’ words become more explicit and enigmatic at the same time. “I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you.” Advocate? Another new idea for them with no time to explore its meaning.
Jesus tells us of the positive value of his sacrifice, since it will result in the intimate presence of the Holy Spirit. Yes, the disciples will experience a deep sense of loss only to be brought to unity and the fullness of the Resurrection.
The letter to the Philippians (2:7), read on Palm Sunday, gives us a clue to discovering the paradoxical value of Jesus’ spiritual poverty: He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. The loss of dignity along with loss of life left Jesus as the lowest of the low, the form of a slave. A slave owns nothing, not even his own life. If and when we might be called to undergo a radical emptying, it will be to make space for the Holy Spirit, for the Trinity, to live within us more fully. This Jesus models for us by submitting freely to his execution – an extreme to which very few (if any) of us will be subjected.
So we learn that separation or loss is the prelude to union. This union can occur – partially, at least – BEFORE we die. This holy and transformative togetherness can begin now, while we’re still on this planet, if only we commit to loving others as Christ loved us.
Yes, separation, loss or detachment is necessary. Some heroic saints, like Francis or Thérèse, take the initiative in this emptying. But it is not less valuable when we patiently accept loss. Certainly, we’re given plenty of opportunities to experience it: in the death or distance of loved ones or, unfortunately, separation through misunderstandings and grudges. It occurs with the loss of precious things: our health, needing to leave a beloved home, school or church. Even in these common experiences, the Holy Spirit stands ready to wean us ever more from the material we cling to, preparing us for a fuller spiritual life: our divinization, our transformation into other Christs, re-incarnations, so to speak, into what Christ was for others on this earth.
“Don’t cling to me, ” Jesus will tell Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection. We cannot develop the necessary strength for the ultimate Communion, without collaborating with the Holy Spirit as we work our way out of our human cocoon. We are assured of success through Jesus’ prayer:
I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.
. . . that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me,
that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.
Father, they are your gift to me. I wish that where I am they also may be with me, that they may see my glory that you gave me, because you loved me before the foundation of the world. (John 17:20-21;22b-24)
No, separation is not total, nor is death the end; not for Christ and not for us. Through the love and sacrifice of Christ, we are graced to begin our new union with God — here.