Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A. John 14:15-21.
AI will not leave you orphans,@ Jesus says in the gospel reading we have just heard. Mother Teresa used to say: AThe greatest sickness in the modern world is loneliness C just having no one.@ To have no one is especially painful for a young child. One of the major traumas of little children is getting separated from Mummy or Daddy in a crowd. Across the distance of eighty-five years I can still remember my panic at losing sight of my mother in the pre-Christmas shopping crush at Macy=s, the big New York department store. She found me again a few moments later. But at age four it seemed an eternity. I can feel the fright and pain still.
Infinitely greater was the pain I experienced two years later when my mother really did leave me. She died of pneumonia the day after Christmas 1934, after only a week=s illness. Not two years after this tragedy the Lord who tells us, AI will not leave you orphans,@ came to me in an experience which (as I realize now looking back) would shape the rest of my life. At age seven or eight it came home to me one day, with a certainty which has never left me, that the separation from my mother was temporary only. I would see her again, when God called me home to himself.
That childhood insight was the seed from which my call to priesthood grew. It planted in me the desire to be close to the spiritual world: the world of God, the world of the angels, of the saints, and of our beloved dead. I never stand at the altar to offer the Holy Sacrifice in which we stand on the threshold of that spiritual world without praying for my mother C and now of course for so many other loved ones as well who, in the decades since her death, have followed her home to God.
AI will not leave you orphans,@ Jesus promises us. AI will come to you.@ Jesus spoke those words of farewell the night before his death. He spoke them knowing that his death was imminent. That is why he says: AIn a little while the world will no longer see me.@ And then he adds: ABut you will see me, because I live and you will live.@
That is the great, central truth of our faith: Jesus lives! Jesus, who really died, just as each of us must die one day, is alive. This celebration is not the sorrowful commemoration of a dead hero. It is a joyful encounter with our living, ever present Lord. At Easter Jesus did not come back to life. Jesus= earthly life ended on Calvary. At Easter Jesus was raised to new life C a life beyond death, a life which would never end.
That is why Jesus left his burial wrappings behind in the tomb. He would never need them again. When Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead, by contrast, Lazarus came forth from his tomb, as we read in John=s gospel, Abound head and foot with linen strips, his face wrapped in a cloth@ (11:44). Lazarus did come back to earthly life. He would need his burial wrappings again.
Because Jesus did not come back to earthly life, but was raised at Easter to new, heavenly life, most of those to whom he appeared after the resurrection did not recognize him at first. Because he was alive on a new, spiritual level, he had no earthly abode. He was no longer subject to earthly limitations. He could appear and disappear at will, even behind locked doors, as he did to his frightened apostles in the upper room on Easter evening.
It is part of the good news of the gospel that this new, heavenly life which Jesus enjoys will one day be ours. One day C but not now. Here and now we encounter the Lord who promises not to leave us orphans through his Holy Spirit: the AAdvocate@ as Jesus calls him in today=s gospel, who will Abe with you always, the Spirit of truth.@
This Advocate, the Holy Spirit of the living God and third person of the Trinity, is the love poured out from the Father on his Son, and returned by the Son to his Father. For most of us our first experience of love came through the care which our mothers lavished on us when we were too small and too young to know or remember it. Each of us learned to love, if we have learned at all, by being loved. As we grew to maturity we were called to share this love with others by obeying the commandments of Him who is the source of all love.
AIf you love me,@ Jesus tells us in today=s gospel, Ayou will keep my commandments. ... Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me. And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him.@
What about the times we have not kept God=s commandments? None of us has kept them completely. All of us have failed at times, many of us often. For such failures there is a special sacrament: the sacrament of penance or reconciliation, most often called simply confession. When we bring our failures to God, with sincere sorrow and a firm purpose to do better, God forgives us. He doesn=t want us to drag behind us an every lengthening trail of guilt.
On the next to last day of his visit to this country in April 2008, Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged his own failures. At the end of the Mass he celebrated in New York=s St. Patrick=s Cathedral, Cardinal Bertone, the papal Secretary of State, reminded everyone that it was the third anniversary of Benedict=s election as Pope and thanked him for all he had done in those three years. The congregation responded with prolonged applause.
Though English is the Pope=s fourth language (after his native German, Italian, and French), Benedict responded with simplicity and genuine humility. Here is what he said: AAt this moment I can only thank you for your love of the Church and Our Lord, and for the love which you show to the poor Successor of Saint Peter. I will try to do all that is possible to be a worthy successor of the great Apostle, who also was a man with faults and sins, but remained in the end the rock for the Church. And so I too, with all my spiritual poverty, can be for this time, in virtue of the Lord=s grace, the Successor of Peter.@
Our present Holy Father, Pope Francis, has made similar statements of his sinfulness and unworthiness on many occasions. As we give thanks to God for giving us Holy Fathers of such genuine humility, we pray that the Lord will strengthen them, and all those called to leadership in the Lord’s Church. We pray also that the Lord will give each of us a full measure of the same strong and humble faith which they model for us.