Those of you fortunate enough to live in a diocese where the Ascension is observed on its proper Thursday will be able to hear proclaimed this Sunday the proper Readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter. Pre-empting this Sunday by the Solemnity of the Ascension is a bit unfortunate, because it damages the pattern of the Lectionary. During the later Sundays of Easter, we read from the Last Supper Discourse (John 13-17), culminating in the Seventh Sunday, on which we read the grande finale of the Last Supper Discourse, namely the High Priestly Prayer (John 17). Ironically, although John 17 is important enough that it is read on the final Sunday of Easter in all years (A,B,C), due to the transference of Ascension Day, this remarkable and beautiful chapter—the longest prayer of Jesus recorded in Scripture!—is never read at a Sunday Mass. A passage that the framers of the Lectionary wished the faithful to hear every year is thus never heard. Hopefully some kind of adjustment will be made in the future.
Be that as it may, the Readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter are very rich, including themes of kingship and priesthood for the Apostles, and by extension for all Christians. At Mt. Sinai, God promised Israel that, if they were faithful to the covenant, “you shall be to me a royal priesthood” (or, “kingdom of preists,” the Hebrew is ambiguous). But due to the Golden Calf and other violations, this promise was not fulfilled. St. Peter proclaimed it fulfilled in the Church: “you are a royal priesthood,” (1 Peter 2:9). In a very special way, this was fulfilled in the Apostles. In today’s Readings, we see both the royal and priestly aspect of the Apostolic role.
1. Our First Reading is Acts 1:15-17, 20a, 20c-26
Peter stood up in the midst of the brothers
—there was a group of about one hundred and twenty persons
in the one place —.
He said, “My brothers,
the Scripture had to be fulfilled
which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand
through the mouth of David, concerning Judas,
who was the guide for those who arrested Jesus.
He was numbered among us
and was allotted a share in this ministry.
“For it is written in the Book of Psalms:
May another take his office [Greek: episkopēn].
“Therefore, it is necessary that one of the men
who accompanied us the whole time
the Lord Jesus came and went among us,
beginning from the baptism of John
until the day on which he was taken up from us,
become with us a witness to his resurrection.”
So they proposed two, Judas called Barsabbas,
who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.
Then they prayed,
“You, Lord, who know the hearts of all,
show which one of these two you have chosen
to take the place in this apostolic ministry
from which Judas turned away to go to his own place.”
Then they gave lots to them, and the lot fell upon Matthias,
and he was counted with the eleven apostles.
We read this passage for the Feast of St. Matthias in dioceses where Ascension Day is transferred. This is an important passage for understanding the connection between the Apostles and the bishops of the Church, and the concept that we call apostolic succession. The following is a little essay I use to teach on this concept in my New Testament courses:
“The principle of apostolic succession is that the leaders of the Church, by which we mean primarily (but not only) the bishops, were appointed by the previous generation of leaders, and they in turn by a previous generation, all the way back to the apostles, who appointed the Church’s first generation of leaders during their own lifetimes. Thus, the bishops are successors of the apostles in the sense that they fulfill the apostles’ role, which is one of leadership or oversight (episkopē in Greek).
We see this pattern in Acts.
Our Reading, Acts 1:12-26, the replacement of Judas by Matthias, is significant. It does not prove apostolic succession. But it demonstrates two important points: (1) The apostles had a role or office, which did not necessarily cease with their death, (2) this role is described, among other things, as an episkopen, an “oversight” (“his office [espiskopēn] let another take”, Acts 1:20 rsv). Calling the apostles’ role an episkopēn shows the connection between the apostles and the later leaders of the Church, who are frequently called episkopoi (in English, “bishops”: Acts 2:28; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:7). (The English word “bishop” is a corruption, through German, of the Greek word “episkopos.” That’s why we still say the “bishops” belong to an “episcopal conference,” etc.)
In Acts 1, the church is growing already (120 people, Acts 1:15) and the apostles are short on leadership, because they are missing Judas. So he is replaced by Matthias. The apostles are back up to full strength of numbers, the very important number 12, representing the twelve patriarchs and the “twelve officers over the kingdom” (1 Kings 4:7).
In the beginning of the Church, they are able to perform all the roles of leadership, but this quickly becomes too much. They appoint more leaders (Acts 6:3), by the laying on of hands (Acts 6:6), to share the burden with them.
Later yet, the Church is going to spread all over the Mediterranean, to places the apostles cannot get to easily. Then, the apostles appoint other men to share in the “oversight” (episkopēn). These men are called presbuteroi, “elders”, from which we get the English word “priest”: see Acts 14:23.
In the beginning there is no clear distinction between presbuteroi and episkopoi: compare Acts 20:17 and 20:28. Later, these roles will be differentiated. It is like tissue in an unborn baby: at first the organs are one lump of cells, but they differentiate into different organs in time. In a similar way, the apostles had the role of bishop, priest, and deacon all wrapped in one, but these roles differentiate in time. All clergy share in Holy Orders and, at least in a general way, in apostolic succession, since they fulfill roles of leadership originally held by the apostles. But we usually restrict language of “apostolic succession” to the bishops, who alone have the full authority of the apostles.
The leadership of the early Church was always appointed by the apostles, not elected. (How does this compare with the practice of many non-Catholic groups?) This pattern holds in Acts and also the Pastoral Epistles (see Titus 1:5). Even in exceptional cases—like Paul, who is made an apostle directly by Jesus—a leader would go to the apostles to receive affirmation of his authority (see Acts 9:27; Gal 1:18; 2:1-2, 9).
If we ponder this principle of appointing leaders, we will see that it is a top-down structure, and it implies apostolic succession: all the church’s leaders, if legitimate, ought to be able to trace their appointment to the apostles, handed on in succession.
Look at Titus 1:5. Titus is Paul’s representative, his “child in faith” (1:4). Paul tells Titus to appoint presbuteroi and episkopoi (elders/priests and bishops, 1:5, 7) for Crete in every town. Appointing such people was something Paul used to do personally [Acts 14:23]. Now he’s passing the authority on to Titus. This shows us apostolic succession.
Look at Acts 20:28-37. Paul knows he is being taken away from the Church of Ephesus. He will no longer be able to lead them, due to imprisonment and ultimately death (20:29, 38). He passes them the torch of episkopen to them (20:28). Again, this shows us apostolic succession. The elders/overseers (in our usual terminology, priests/bishops) will guide the Church in Paul’s absence.
Our Reading shows the apostles exercising the royal role of their office, that of governing, as they restore their numbers to twelve in order to be the “twelve officers over the Kingdom of Israel” (1 Kings 4:7) typified in the Kingdom of David under the rule of Solomon of old. Jesus had promised them “you will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt 19:28), and in Acts we see them “judging” (i.e. leading; think of the role of the “judges” in the Old Testament) the young Church, which is the new “twelve tribes of Israel” (compare Gal. 6:16; James 1:1). In fact, in our Reading, the mention of number of early Christians as 120—ten times twelve—is probably intended by Luke to invoke the memory and concept of the twelve tribes. There is a quorum of ten persons for each of the twelve tribes. For what it is worth, ten men is the traditional minyan or quorum in Judaism for the establishment of a synagogue, that is, for formal prayer services.
P. Our Responsorial Psalm is Ps 103:1-2, 11-12, 19-20:
R. (19a) The Lord has set his throne in heaven.
Bless the LORD, O my soul;
and all my being, bless his holy name.
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits.
R. The Lord has set his throne in heaven.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so surpassing is his kindness toward those who fear him.
As far as the east is from the west,
so far has he put our transgressions from us.
R. The Lord has set his throne in heaven.
The LORD has established his throne in heaven,
and his kingdom rules over all.
Bless the LORD, all you his angels,
you mighty in strength, who do his bidding.
R. The Lord has set his throne in heaven.
This is a psalm of praise for the Kingdom of God. We see God’s kingdom manifested on earth in the community of God’s people ruled over by his viceroys, the Apostles.
2. Our Second Readingis 1 Jn 4:11-16:
Beloved, if God so loved us,
we also must love one another.
No one has ever seen God.
Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us,
and his love is brought to perfection in us.
This is how we know that we remain in him and he in us,
that he has given us of his Spirit.
Moreover, we have seen and testify
that the Father sent his Son as savior of the world.
Whoever acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God,
God remains in him and he in God.
We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us.
God is love, and whoever remains in love
remains in God and God in him.
We have been reading from 1 John during the Easter Season of Year B. Usually, 1 John is associated with the Christmas Season, during which most of the book is read. This year, we get 1 John at both Christmas and Easter. First John is an epistle meant to confirm Christians in the faith, giving them signs by which they can test themselves, to be confident (or not) that they are truly Christians and not self-deceived individuals. In this reading, John mentions three signs of a true Christian: (1) love for fellow Christians, (2) reception of the Holy Spirit, (3) acknowledgement of Jesus’ divine sonship. Those who show no love for fellow Christians, no evidence of the Holy Spirit’s activity, and do not acknowledge Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God, are not Christians and do not “remain in God and God in them.” They have departed from the communion of God’s people.
3. Our Gospel is Jn 17:11b-19:
Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed saying:
“Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me,
so that they may be one just as we are one.
When I was with them I protected them in your name that you gave me,
and I guarded them, and none of them was lost
except the son of destruction,
in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled.
But now I am coming to you.
I speak this in the world
so that they may share my joy completely.
I gave them your word, and the world hated them,
because they do not belong to the world
any more than I belong to the world.
I do not ask that you take them out of the world
but that you keep them from the evil one.
They do not belong to the world
any more than I belong to the world.
Consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth.
As you sent me into the world,
so I sent them into the world.
And I consecrate myself for them,
so that they also may be consecrated in truth.”
This is a portion of the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus (John 17), so-called in part because the prayer is structured like—and shares themes with—the service celebrated by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Israelite/Jewish liturgical calendar. On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would enter the sanctuary to make atonement before the Ark of the Covenant for (1) himself, (2) his fellow priests, and (3) the whole people. Then he would come out and bless the people by pronouncing the Holy Name of God three times, according to the blessing found in Numbers 6. So we see in John 17 a threefold division of Jesus’ prayer: he prays first for himself, then for the Apostles, and finally for the whole Church. In Years A, B, and C of the Lectionary, we are supposed to read these three parts of the prayer sequentially. In Year B, we have the portion of the prayer that Jesus prayed for the Apostles. In it, we see the important theme of the Holy Name. Jesus prays that the Apostles be kept “in your Name.” The Day of Atonement was the only day (apparently) in late Judaism on which the Name of God was audibly proclaimed.
We also see themes of priestly ordination in this prayer. Jesus prays that the Father will “consecrate” the apostles “in truth,” using a Greek word, hagiazo, frequently associated with the rites of priestly ordination in the Old Testament. Knowing that he is going to the Father, Jesus the High Priest is preparing priestly successors for himself who will continue his priestly ministry on earth after he ascends to the Father.
So our Gospel has a particular application to the successors of the Apostles, the bishops, and those in Holy Orders who help them in their priestly ministry. It is a great gift of Jesus that he prepared and left behind men to continue his priestly office on earth.
But the meaning of the text does not stop there. While the Twelve represent, first of all, the episcopal college, they also represent the nucleus of the entire Church. And the Church is a priestly people. We share Christ’s royal or common priesthood by virtue of our baptism, and this priestly dimension of every Christian’s life ought not to be minimized. We, too, are called to be “consecrated in the truth.” To be “consecrated” is to be made holy. And we must not forget what Vatican II articulated concerning the universal call to holiness. Every baptized believer is called to attempt to become a saint whom the Church could canonize if she wished. Any other goal is a shirking of the duty that comes with baptism. We truly need to desire and seek after holiness. The Old Testament priesthood gives us an instructive image in how this may be done. Old Testament priests were forbidden to own land, because the Lord alone was to be their “inheritance” and “portion.” Likewise, we need to become detached from property and possessions, so that our hope and love can be all for the Lord. Sometimes the Lord, in fact, sends us set backs, reverses, and losses precisely so that we may become detached from these things and learn to love him exclusively. This is part of our holiness, our sharing in Christ’s consecrated priesthood.