Let the Scriptures Speak
Between Ascension and Pentecost
Now this is eternal life, that they should know you,
the only true God, and the
one whom you sent, Jesus Christ. (John 17:3)
This Sunday rounds out the seven Sundays of Easter, the season of the Church's explicit celebration of the resurrection and its meaning for Christian life. At the same time, this seventh Sunday, coming between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday, focuses exquisitely on the transition between the departure of Jesus' physical presence to his followers and the birth of the Church with the end-time outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Granted that we later generations of Christians live in an era long after Pentecost, there is something about this transitional moment, which Luke symbolizes as a ten-day segue, that can help us understand our own moment in salvation history.
Today's First Reading gives us Luke's snapshot of the apostles and other disciples gathered in prayer in that interval of time. While they were still gaping at the sky after the ascension, angels sent them back into the rest of history with a jibe: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?”
Instinctively, they gather with the rest of the little band of disciples in the upper room, where some of them had shared the Last Supper with their master. Luke will note that they number about 120. This numeric note is more than mere census; the multiple of twelve underscores Luke's conviction that this Jerusalem community of “Jews for Jesus” begins to fulfill the ancient expectation that “The Age to Come” would entail the restoration of Israel. The list of eleven disciples is conspicuous for the absence of Judas. The first agenda item for this post-ascension community will be the restoration of the core group to the number twelve, showing the apostolic concern for restoring the number to the very meaning of Jesus’ original choice of a symbolic Twelve. The mention of “Mary the mother of Jesus” recalls the only other times Luke refers to Jesus' mother by name, the accounts of the conception (Lk 1:27) and the birth (Lk 2:5) of Jesus. The mention of her by name here in Acts underscores the fact that a new birth in the power of the Spirit is about to occur, the birth of the Church on Pentecost. Like Jesus praying after the baptism at the Jordan River, just before a fresh manifestation of the Holy Spirit in his life, the 120 in the upper room “devoted themselves with one accord to prayer.” (Lk 1:14)
Though we live long after Pentecost, Luke's scenario reminds us of some perennial realities about being Church. Though life in the community of faith requires plenty of nitty-gritty administrative tasks (like electing a replacement for Judas), at the end of the day, the Church takes its life from an act of God. Like the birth of Jesus itself, the Church is conceived and brought to birth by the Holy Spirit. As in its inception, the continued life of the Church demands ongoing communal prayer and openness to the Spirit, never forgetting that we always pray with Mary.
In this Sunday's Gospel, John addresses many of these same post- Easter realities couched in much different language in the prayer of Jesus concluding his Last Supper farewell discourses. As in Acts 1, the focus of John 17 is on the transition between the earthly ministry of Jesus and the life of the post-Easter Church.
To modern ears not attuned to the biblical roots of the New Testament writing, talk of “glory” can carry vague and sentimental associations. But for people of John's and Jesus' time and place, glory meant the visible manifestation of God's presence and power. We first meet this meaning of “glory” in John's prologue:
And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father's only Son,
full of grace and truth." (Jn 1:14)
The incarnation of the eternal and creative Word in Jesus is the manifestation of the presence of God in the humanity of Jesus. Here in the prayer of John 17, Jesus refers to his public life as an expression of the glory of the Son's own pre-creation presence to the Father. Toward the end of the part quoted as today's Gospel, he says that he has been glorified in his disciples. This way of thinking led to our insight that the purpose of the Church is to be the primary sacrament of the incarnation. This sense of “glory” helps us understand Jesus' prayer at the end of John 17, where he says, “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,” (Jn 17:22-23)
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University