5th Sunday of Easter 2019
Acts 14:21-27; Rev 21:1-5; John 13:31-35
“They shall be His people and He will be their God.” So says the Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation. How often have we heard that same promise in the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament? And now the promise is fulfilled: we ARE His people and He IS our God. His name is indeed God-with-them—Emmanuel: that was revealed to St. Joseph by the angel in St. Matthew’s Gospel. God is with us.
God is with us because He has become one of us, in the person of His Son. He is with us because that same Son has sent us the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. Why then does God often seem far away from us?
Part of the answer lies in the words of Paul and Barnabas to the disciples: “We all have to experience many hardships before we enter the Kingdom of God.” These hardships are a sharing in the sufferings of Christ, and the closer we draw to Him, the greater our share in His suffering.
Perhaps the greatest suffering of all is the feeling that God is absent. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins summed it up in the words “My prayers must strike a brazen heaven” and in one of the so called “terrible sonnets”, the one beginning “No worst, there is none, pitched past pitch of grief” which continues “Comforter, where, where is your comforting? Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?”
Likewise, throughout history, the saints have experienced the apparent absence of God. St. John of the Cross saw the night of the senses and the dark night of the soul as essential stages on the individual’s journey to God. St. Therese of Lisieux, who had wallowed in the sense of God’s love for her, wrote, towards the end of her short life: “What I have written is what I hope is true: for some time now, I have had no feeling of it”, whilst St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta apparently spent forty five years of her much longer live deprived of all awareness of God’s presence.
The late militant atheist Christopher Hitchens who, for some reason, nursed a particular loathing for Mother Teresa, claimed that her feeling arose because she had discovered that there was no one to pray to. If he had known anything either of scripture or of Christian history, he would have realised that precisely the opposite was true. Mother Teresa herself would have known that she was being given a particularly deep share in the Passion of Christ, experiencing at close proximity His sense of desolation in Gethsemane and on the Cross, when the Son of God Himself cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Yet, as Jesus Himself declared at the Last Supper, this very sense of abandonment was His glorification, the revelation of His identity as God. Being betrayed, deserted, raised up on the Cross was His glory, completed and not reversed by His resurrection.
In His glorification, Jesus had one commandment for His followers, those with Him at the supper table: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
Couples often choose this or a similar reading for their marriage service. “Love one another” is an appropriate basis for marriage. I wonder, however, how many of them recognise the sting in the tail:”Just as I have loved you.”
Married couples, and the rest of us, must love as Jesus loves us, with a love which took Him to Gethsemane and to the Cross. What He calls for is a self-emptying love, not only for God, but for those whom God puts in our way. Are we capable of that self-denying love? Of course we are not, or rather, we would not be were He not our God and we His people; were He not Emmanuel, God-with-us. Only in and through Him are we capable of loving one another, and of loving God, even when He seems far away.