Fifth Sunday of Easter: New and Disconcerting

My children and I sing from time to time in an Anglican church choir.  It is an interesting experience, something like going to the Cloisters museum in New York City.  On the one hand, this parish preserves Catholic artistic traditions, especially music, far better than anywhere Catholic that I have experienced.  On the other hand, they do not share the Catholic faith, from submission to Peter to the unique necessity of Jesus Christ to various moral teachings.  (Interesting: like a museum, it is natural that a place uniquely focused on traditional practices will preserve those practices better than a Catholic parish that is more interested in preaching the integrity of the Catholic faith.) 

Easter was a fascinating example.  We sang the Gregorian introit (or entrance antiphon): “I have risen, and I am with you, alleluia.  You have laid your hand upon me, alleluia. Too wonderful for me this knowledge, alleluia, alleluia.”  Our choir director—I mean no disrespect when I say he is an excellent musician who does not believe what the Catholic Church teaches—made the very true observation that the traditional, Gregorian musical setting of this text isn’t very happy. 

It struck me that Easter is a little scary.  The Glorious Mysteries are not just Joyful.  They’re disconcerting.  They throw us off our balance.  Part of the reason people don’t accept the teaching of the Catholic Church—and why they rejected Jesus when he lived on this earth—is that the joy of Christian faith calls us far out of our comfort zone.  “You have laid your hand upon me” is good news—and also kind of scary news.  The Resurrection, far from eliminating death, calls us to pass to life through death.  It is frightening.

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The same thing struck me with last week’s readings, for the Fifth Sunday of Easter.

In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas are “proclaiming the good news.” But the good news is, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”  They report what God has done for them—but it involves an awful lot of travel.  “He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles,” which is great—but also means Paul’s whole conception of life, and culture, and home is turned upside down.  Christianity is not about being comfortable.

The reading from the second-to-last chapter of Revelation has the good news that God “will dwell with them” and “He will wipe every tear from their eyes.”  But he says, “I make all things new.”  It is “a new heaven and a new earth.  The former heaven and the former earth had passed away.”  We are not left in our cozy homes.  Jesus pulls us out of our place of comfort and takes us somewhere new.  We pass to the Resurrection, but only through the loss of what we thought life meant. 

“A new Jerusalem [is] coming down out of heaven from God”—a new way of life, in which we receive from God what we cannot attain by our own strength and would not have planned.  We are “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband”: and like any wedding, joy must be mingled with the fear and confusion of leaving our father and mother.

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And so our Gospel, from the beginning of Jesus’s long Last Supper discourse in John, talks about glory.  “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.”  But why?  How?  The key is in “when”: “Now” is “When Judas had left them,” to go betray Jesus.  His glory comes through the Cross.  And we realize that glory is a different thing from comfort; the glorious mysteries are more unsettling than the joyful.

“If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself.”  Glory is the work of God, and that’s disconcerting.  Glory means God’s glory, and that is also disconcerting.  Glory takes us from a merely human life to a share in the divine.  Very disconcerting.

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And then Jesus shifts his theme: “I give you a new commandment: love one another.  As I have loved you, so also should love one another.”  St. Thérèse points out that loving one another is not a new commandment; that was already the heart of the Old Testament.  And frankly, there are lots of ways that we naturally love one another: love our friends, our family, etc., at least when it’s convenient. 

The new commandment is to love “as I have loved you.”  That kind of love is so new, so distinctive, that “This is how all will know that you are my disciples.”  (He says, “If you have agape for one another”: that new love.)  Such a crazy change of life that it will make you look different from the world.

That’s disconcerting.

Easter is good news.  But it is a bit frightening.

What newness does the glory of Easter demand in your life?

eric.m.johnston

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