Scripture and the Liturgy

Seventh Sunday of Easter

Here is a commentary on the Readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, and let me begin by saying, if you have a Seventh Sunday of Easter, you are indeed blessed!  This is an important Sunday: it is climactic, the last Sunday before Pentecost in the Easter Season.  The architects of the Vatican II lectionary saved very important readings for this date, notably the High Priestly Prayer of John 17.  This magnificient prayer is the longest of Jesus’ prayers recorded in Scripture, and it is the climax of the Last Supper Discourse (John 13-17), the longest discourse of Jesus recorded in Scripture.  In this prayer, Our Lord reveals his deepest desires for himself, his Apostles, and the whole Church.  It is hard to overestimate its significance to Christian theology.  In the Liturgy, we have been, as it were, sitting with the Apostles in the Upper Room with Jesus before the Passion, listening to him teach about the Holy Spirit for the past several Sundays of Easter.  Now, on the Seventh Sunday, we come to the climax of Jesus’ teaching, in which he sums up everything with a prayer for the Church to imitate externally and internally the intimate unity of the Trinity itself. 

Those who designed the Vatican II Lectionary knew the significance of this prayer, and intended it to be heard by the people of God every year on the Seventh Sunday of Easter.  Unfortunately, however, most Catholics in the United States never hear this Gospel proclaimed, because Ascension Day pre-empts the Seventh Sunday of Easter, thus defeating the design of the Lectionary.  C’est la vie.

In the Second Reading, we have been working through the Book of Revelation, and we read the end of it at this Mass.  Again, most American Catholics never hear how Revelation ends.

In any event, you lucky folks in the Northeast, Southeast, and Nebraska are blessed to be able to experience this part of the liturgical year as it was intended. 

The theme for these Readings could be described as “Our Heavenly Goal,” because all of them point forward to God’s final intention for us as members of the Church.

1.  The First Reading is the Martyrdom of Stephen:

Reading 1 Acts 7:55-60

Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit,
looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God
and Jesus standing at the right hand of God,
and Stephen said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened
and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
But they cried out in a loud voice,
covered their ears, and rushed upon him together.
They threw him out of the city, and began to stone him.
The witnesses laid down their cloaks
at the feet of a young man named Saul.
As they were stoning Stephen, he called out,
“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
Then he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice,
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them;”
and when he said this, he fell asleep.

We see how well this Reading fits into the liturgical year.  On Thursday we celebrated Ascension Day, when Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, to begin his heavenly reign.  Now, moments before his death, Stephen is granted the special grace of seeing heavenly reality: he actually beholds the risen Christ, “standing at the right hand of God.” 

Why “standing”?  The usual expression is to “sit at the right hand” (Ps 110:1 etc.) denoting enthronement.  In fact, while there are about twenty references in the New Testament to “sitting at the right hand” of God, this is the only place where Jesus is depicted as “standing.”  Again, why?  I propose it is because the king never rose from his throne except to honor the person who was coming into his presence.  We see this in 1 Kings 2:19, where Solomon rises to greet his mother, the Queen Mother, when she enters the throne room.  So here in Acts 7, I believe Stephen sees Our Lord “standing,” because Jesus has risen from his throne to show honor to the first martyr who is entering his presence.

In a week we will celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and Stephen in this Reading is already “filled with the Holy Spirit.”  This infilling of the Holy Spirit leads him closer to Jesus Christ.  He is able to see Jesus.  Indeed, he is able to “see the kingdom of God,” because “unless you are born anew (of water and the Spirit), you cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, 3:5).  The gift of the Spirit enables us to “see” spiritual reality, and also to be conformed to Jesus, as we see at the end of the Reading.  Stephen is conformed to Jesus in his death, because the way he dies is strongly reminiscent of the way Jesus dead.  Jesus and Stephen both die asking God to forgive their murderers (Luke 23:34; Acts 7:60).  Both die commending their spirits to God (Luke 23:46; Acts 7:59).  Because he is full of the Holy Spirit, Stephen can see the Kingdom and act just like Jesus.  That’s what the Spirit does for us.

P.  The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 97:1-2, 6-7, 9:

R. The Lord is king, the most high over all the earth.
The LORD is king; let the earth rejoice;
let the many islands be glad.
Justice and judgment are the foundation of his throne.
R. The Lord is king, the most high over all the earth.
The heavens proclaim his justice,
and all peoples see his glory.
All gods are prostrate before him.
R. The Lord is king, the most high over all the earth.
You, O LORD, are the Most High over all the earth,
exalted far above all gods.
R. The Lord is king, the most high over all the earth.

This Psalm is one of several in Book IV of the Psalter that celebrates the LORD God as king over the earth.  In the narrative of the Psalter, Book I witnesses the rise of David, Book II celebrates the glory of his kingdom, and Book III witnesses the decline and collapse of the Davidic Kingdom (see esp. Ps. 89).  Book IV seems set in the exile, when the kingdom of David was not in existence.  In exile, the people of Judah turn their thoughts to God’s kingdom, which cannot be destroyed.

In the mystery of God’s providence, through Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of David and the Kingdom of God have become one thing, united the God-Man.  In the First Reading Stephen saw Christ established as king over all the earth.  Now our Psalm celebrates this kingship.

We might well ask: if Jesus is ruling, why on earth does he let Stephen die?  And further: why does he let ISIS kill Christians, and let anti-Christian atheists take over the reigns of control of most Western nations, not to mention the remaining communist countries like China and North Korea?

Indeed, it often doesn’t look like Jesus is in control.  This is the paradox of Jesus’ kingdom.  Although it exists in this world, it is not “of this world” (John 18:36).  In this world the course of our lives will be like that of Christ’s: suffering, followed by death.  This is the “way”: “I AM the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).  The way to truth and life is to follow Jesus on the cross: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23).  Suffering and death were the path by which Stephen—and ourselves—reach Christ standing at the right hand of God.  So we should come to love these realities, as they help us on to Jesus.  Thus, St. Francis spoke of “sister Death” and St. Josemaria said, “Love the Cross. When you really love it, your Cross will be…a Cross, without a Cross.”

2. Our Second Reading is Rev 22:12-14, 16-17, 20:

I, John, heard a voice saying to me:
“Behold, I am coming soon.
I bring with me the recompense I will give to each
according to his deeds.
I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last,
the beginning and the end.”

Blessed are they who wash their robes
so as to have the right to the tree of life
and enter the city through its gates.

“I, Jesus, sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches.
I am the root and offspring of David,
the bright morning star.”

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
Let the hearer say, “Come.”
Let the one who thirsts come forward,
and the one who wants it receive the gift of life-giving water.

The one who gives this testimony says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”
Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!

This Reading reminds us that, though now the kingdom is entered “through many tribulations” (Acts 14:22), there will come a day when the truth will be revealed and it will not be possible to deny it.  Christ will return as judge of every human being. 

There is sacramental symbolism in this passage.  “Washing the robes” refers to Baptism, “eating from the Tree of Life” to Eucharist.  Through the Sacraments, we slake our thirst for the “living water” which is the Holy Spirit.

This Reading reminds us that the destiny of each one of us, as well as our collective destiny as the Church, is to face Jesus Christ, the King, and—if we have suffered with him (Rom 8:17)—share in the glory of his kingdom.

3.  The Gospel is Jn 17:20-26:

Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed saying:
“Holy Father, 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.
And I have given them the glory you gave me,
so 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.
Righteous Father, the world also does not know you,
but I know you, and they know that you sent me.
I made known to them your name and I will make it known,
that the love with which you loved me
may be in them and I in them.”

John 17 is rightly called the “High Priestly Prayer,” and it has important elements in common with the Day of Atonement liturgy, which was performed by the High Priest in the Old Covenant era.  On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies and made atonement for (1) himself, (2) the priesthood, and (3) the people of Israel.  This is also the structure of John 17, as Jesus prays for himself (vv. 1-5), the Apostles (vv. 6-19), and the Church (vv. 20-26). The Lectionary recognizes this, and places the first part of the prayer in Year A, the second part in Year B, and the third in Year C.  So here we are in 2016, concluding another cycle in which Jesus completes his prayer to the Father by praying for the whole Church.

There are many things we could say about the prayer and this section of it, but I will focus on just one:  Jesus’ intention for the unity of the Church. He prays:

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.

Jesus prays for the unity of the Church, that the world may believe.  This shows us the connection between unity and mission, ecumenism and evangelization. 

The efforts of the Church to evangelize the Western world have been catastrophically damaged by the so-called “Reformation,” the fall out from which has been incalculable.  The continued decline of Christian influence on Western culture is all traceable to the religious relativism and subjectivism that are the inevitable result of Protestantism, the view that there is no infallible guide to truth other than my own personal interpretation of Scripture.  It’s just one step from that to saying there is no guide to truth other than my own personal interpretation, and therefore if I call myself a woman, I AM, even if I’m really a sixty-year-old grandpa. 

We need to recover the unity of the Church, and unity cannot be restored without the successor of Peter, who was charge to be the center point of unity.  Peter was not without his flaws, and neither has been any of his successors.  Nonetheless, the Spirit works through him, and we need to rally around him in unity, in order to witness to the world.

John 17 is one of the Scriptures that drove me into the Catholic Church, because I came to realize only the Catholic Church as that divinely instituted structures to maintain the unity of the body of Christ, which is necessary for effective mission.

In this last week of Pentecost, let’s pray and fast for a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the restoration of unity among Christians, in a spirit of forgiveness for those who have harmed unity (“Do not hold this sin against them…”).  Let’s pray for unity, that the world may believe in Christ, and through him find eternal life in God’s kingdom.

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