1 April [Holy Thursday]
Before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me….”
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
In John’s Gospel there is no account of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Instead we are told about his washing the disciples’ feet. The feet are the lowliest part of a person, the most down-to-earth; he offered the humblest service. Then he sat down and said, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet.” In equivalent words, “Do this in memory of me.” In even the humblest service we do for one another, Jesus is present; we should talk about a “real presence” in this too; it is a kind of Eucharist.
Almost half of John's gospel is taken up with a description of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Someone noticed that in the first half of this gospel the words ‘life’ and ‘live’ occur 50 times, but not once in Jesus' conversation at the Last Supper. Death is hovering near; there is a significant mention of darkness: “Judas left...and it was night” (13:30). That might seem to make the whole scene a depressing one. However, in that conversation the word ‘love’ occurs 31 times. Love is not afraid of darkness, nor is it destroyed by suffering.
It is easy to love in an atmosphere of light and joy; the test is when hardship comes. A scholar describes the Last Supper discourse: “Jesus disregards himself and his suffering, and shows only love for his own and compassion for their future trials. His words, mingling tenderness, restrained melancholy and triumphant certainty of victory, are set between two actions, one of humble service [washing their feet] and the other of prayer (ch. 17). For all time it is a model of grace under pressure.”
2 April [Good Friday]
Jn 18:1 -19:42
They took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them….
Language can only deal with a small part of reality; the rest – by far the greater part – is silence. Death is the great silence ultimately imposed on everyone. “If we are to hear the words of Jesus,” wrote St Ignatius of Antioch (1st/2nd century), “we must hear his silence too.” Kneel by his cross, if you will, but it is better to sit, because we are going to have to stay a long time: all our life, in a way. We have to sit with our own pain and sorrow and resist the temptation to ‘solve’ them or avoid them. Only into silence will they pour out their meaning. Through the centuries millions of people have survived terrible Calvaries because they had learnt something utterly profound from the Cross of Christ.
St Thomas Aquinas was asked where he got his wisdom. He replied, “At the foot of Christ's cross.” It is the central icon or symbol of our Faith. The cross reverses every value: what we call failure is now success, and vice versa, what we call shame is glory, and vice versa, what we call death is now the source of new life.
Yet we use it as an ornament! - we hang it on a wall as a decoration, part of the interior decor of a room. But it is not part of anything: on the contrary, it puts everything in question. We should take great care about where we hang crucifixes; we should hang them only in places where people are going to pray; relate it to prayer, not to interior decor. On this day, Good Friday, look at all the crucifixes in your house and make sure they are related to prayer and contemplation.
The French have a proverb: Friday is always the best or the worst day of the week. Which it is to be depends, I suppose, on what's in store for you at the weekend. It is Easter Sunday that makes Good Friday good. It is the end that gives meaning to a story.
3 April [Holy Saturday, Vigil Mass]
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’
There is no Eucharist of Holy Saturday; this evening’s Eucharist is for Easter. Today the altars are stripped bare, tabernacles lie open and empty. The whole Church is one with Christ in his death. It is necessary to experience this. George Steiner, among others, remarked that our world today is a kind of prolonged Holy Saturday: the age between Friday and Sunday, between defeat and hope. Today, of all days, the Christian heart feels the darkness of the world, and allows itself to look at the darkness in itself….
But in the darkness we rise for the Easter Vigil. Against a black sky we light the Easter fire. But this too would be a forlorn gesture if Christ were not risen from the dead. Suddenly the Paschal candle is alight. Lumen Christi! - the light of Christ lightens our darkness. Exsultet jam angelica turba cælorum! - “Exult, every heavenly creature...! Gaudeat tellus, tantis irradiata fulgoribus! Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendour, radiant in the brightness of your King.... Darkness vanishes forever...! Let this place resound with joy, echoing the mighty song of all God's people!”
4 April [Easter Sunday]
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.
Meister Eckhart said that it was because Mary Magdalene had nothing else to lose that she dared approach the tomb; the apostles had run away because, by implication, they were still trying to save themselves, or trying to save something for themselves. She had lost everything else, he said, "and so she was afraid that if she went away from the grave she would lose the grave as well. For if she had lost the grave she would have nothing left at all." In fact, she lost the grave as well, because it was no longer really a grave: it did not contain the body of Jesus. Yet it was in this state of utter deprivation that the Resurrection took place. It did not take place on the mountain-tops, or on a bright cloud, but in the heart of the grave, the 'degree zero' of human life. It was because Mary Magdalene had the heart to stay by the grave that she became the first bearer of the news of the Resurrection; she was the first Christian preacher.
At first she could not see Jesus anywhere. Why? "Because she kept looking further away than he was," said Eckhart. She kept looking for a dead body, an object; but Jesus was alive and present to her. We are at home with objects; they are at arm's length and we can deal with them. We make this kind of knowledge-at-arm's-length the standard of all knowledge. It is all right for dealing with objects, but the Risen Christ is nearer to us than any object. "Why are you seeking the living among the dead?" (Luke 24:5).
Christians through the centuries have focused a lot of reflection on that large stone laid to the mouth of the tomb. When Mary Magdalene went to the tomb she found the stone removed. That large material object – which might appear a convincing objection to faith – was gone; and she was the first witness to this. No tomb on earth can hold the Lord. No material stone, however heavy, can imprison him. But we should not imagine that material stones are the hardest and heaviest things in the world. Who would have guessed that thoughts, which are made of nothing at all, could be heavier and harder than any stone? But experience tells us it is so. We are able to seal our minds and hearts with immovable stones of prejudice, hatred and fear. "To behold the resurrection, the stone must first be rolled away from our hearts," said Peter Chrysologus (5th century).
[The women] left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, “You must say, 'His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.' If this comes to the governor's ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.
In a culture that did not accept as valid the testimony of women, it is remarkable that the four gospels did not hesitate to make Mary Magdalene’s the first testimony of the resurrection of Jesus.
The chief priests and the Jewish authorities also had a ‘first’: they were the first to give an explanation of the empty tomb. They would be followed by a cloud of theologians throughout the centuries who have tried to explain everything in the Faith. To explain is to explain away, because our explanations never do justice to reality. The word ‘explain’ comes from Latin and means ‘to flatten out’. A mystery flattened out is only a theory at best. Perhaps it is especially through the testimony of women that the mysteries become mysteries again.
Alleluia! is our word in the Easter season: sung, played, repeated endlessly. It is a cry of exultation – not a nervous and superficial one, such as you hear at a sporting event, but quiet, because deep. The joy of Easter is a deep joy that is not tied to any passing event but only to the resurrection of Jesus – and our rising with him.
Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” (Mark says “Mary the mother of James, and Salome; and Luke mentions Joanna) were the first to know of the Resurrection of Jesus. Where were the men? They had all run away! The women were sent to tell the news to the brothers (verse 10). The word ‘apostle’ comes from Greek apostellein, ‘to send’. Therefore the first apostles of the distinctive Christian proclamation of the Resurrection were women! Indeed, Mary Magdalene is traditionally known as “the apostle to the apostles.”
Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
A frequent literary device in John’s gospel is the use of gradual recognition, or misunderstanding as a stage on the path to understanding: see for example, the conversations Jesus had with Nicodemus (ch. 3), the Samaritan woman (ch. 4), etc. In today’s passage we find it once again: Mary thought at first that Jesus was the gardener.
The moment of full recognition was when he spoke her name. This has a great deal of resonance throughout the Scriptures, from beginning to end. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘I am pleased with you and I know you by name’” (Exodus 33:17). Referring to himself, Jesus said, “The sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:2-3). A faith that does not go to the depth of one’s personal existence is not faith but theory. Even theology is not faith: a person may know a great deal of theology but have no faith. I heard a woman describe her husband, “He’s very interested in religion, but he has no faith.” Conversely, a person may know little about religion but have profound faith. St Thomas Aquinas said that one old lady (una vetera) may have more faith than a host of learned theologians.
Matthew’s account says, “The women left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy” (28:8). A tomb is not a place you come away from with joy: you come away in deep grief in the early days of bereavement, and later on with quiet resignation; hardly with joy! But with the death of Jesus there was to be no 'closure': the past was not to be closed up and sealed with nostalgia. The past had flooded into the present through the open tomb: the past is no longer past, it is timeless. This is the destruction of time. “Christ yesterday and today and the same forever” (Heb. 13:8).
Two of [Jesus’ disciples] were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognising him. And he said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?" He asked them, "What things?" They replied, "The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him." Then he said to them, "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, "Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over." So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him; and he vanished from their sight.
They said to each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?" That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, "The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!" Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
The minds of those two defeated men were turned entirely to the past and its regrets. Everything seemed finished. “We had hoped,” but now they had no hope.
Jesus did not reveal his identity in a blinding flash, he entered their conversation, he entered the past with them; he sifted it with them – but differently.
Their hopes had been political: “we had hoped that he was the one to set Israel free.” Deep in their hearts they were disappointed politicians, not disciples. It is not so surprising. It is much easier to be a politician than to be a disciple. There are far more politicians in the world than you would think. Millions of people have political minds. The political mind wants to change other people. But a disciple is one who is willing to be changed.
Jesus listened patiently to the version of history that those two men had. He didn’t cut them off after a few words. He heard them out. Had he cut them off, their doubts and objections would have remained inside them, suppressed and therefore all the more powerful. He listened, and in the light of what they said he read the past for them in a new way. “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”
Just as he did not impose his understanding of the past on them, he did he impose his understanding of the future. He waited for them to invite him. When they came near the village they said, “Stay with us!” He did not impose himself; he allowed them the courtesy of inviting him freely. Faith is God’s invitation to us: “Go into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet” (Matthew 22:9). In practice it has not always been so: many of us still remember the violence with which religion was forced on us in the past: physical violence in the case of children, moral and spiritual violence in the case of adults. Force always gives rise to counter-force. Many have this counter-force working in them and have become deaf accordingly to the invitation of Christ.
Christ does not force us, he invites us. But it has to be an invitation on our part too. Faith is a mutual invitation, because it is an invitation to friendship with God.
“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” This language is a clear reference to the Eucharistic. “Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him.” This is how future disciples will recognise him too, in “the breaking of bread” – an early term for the Eucharist.
But immediately “he vanished from their sight.” They will not be able to possess him as an object, nor locate him in himself alone. Henceforth he is “the head of the body, the Church” (Colossians 1:18). He did not call us to be ‘alone with the Alone’ (whatever that odd phrase meant!), but to be the new community. And he is no longer simply an historical figure, a regretted lost friend, a memory; he is the way forward; he is the Way to the Father; “through him we have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18).
This passage is the great classic text for teaching us how to read the Scriptures. 1. The disciples were going in the wrong direction: away from the action, away from Jerusalem. God’s word can reach you no matter where you are or where you are going. 2. Jesus joined them but did not announce himself. He listened to their story, he gave them space to reveal their own fears, disappointments, hopes.... 3. He reasoned with them; he challenged them to look again at the Scriptures that were already so familiar to them but still a closed book. 4. He respected them, he did not impose himself on them, he left them free to invite him in, he let them be generous. 5. Last of all, he revealed himself to them in the Breaking of Bread.
[The disciples] told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.
While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.
“He stood among them.” John said (20:19) that they were huddled together, with the doors locked, for fear of the Jews; then he uses the same words as Luke: “Jesus stood among them.” He did not have to fumble with a key, or knock loudly (which would have made them lock the door even more securely) or call out (they would not have believed). He just stood suddenly inside the circle of their fear. Left to ourselves we would remain imprisoned forever inside that locked door, and all efforts to bring us out would have the opposite effect. The Risen Lord comes to meet us where we are, comes without violence, without argument or explanation, comes to liberate us into joy.
They had so recently deserted him, but he “stood among them,” and greeted them with peace. Everything in Luke’s account is intended to express the reality of Jesus' presence. By eating he is demonstrating that he is not a ghost. In John's account, Jesus shows his hands and feet to show the marks of the nails, but in Luke's account there is no mention of the wounds. Showing them “his hands and his feet” was intended to show them his physical reality (“flesh and bones” rather than ghostly), but not necessarily the marks of crucifixion. The idiom “flesh and bones” derives from “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” of Genesis 2:23 (Adam so describing Eve), so the reference was to equal and shared humanity.
To say things is easy: it just causes a slight disturbance in the air. When we've said a lot of things we have the impression that we've done something, but we have only been breathing in a more complicated way. You can say the universe is 13.7 billion years old, but what have you said? You can say God made the world, but do you have any idea what you said? A good test of whether you understand something is to get yourself to say it without words – to say it with the body. The body is our first language. The verbal language we speak is shadowy beside it. Zen teachers don’t say ‘Tell me’; they say ‘Show me’.
Our “flesh and bones” are material of the resurrection. The Russian theologian, Paul Evdokimov, wrote about the ways in which matter and nature (including human nature) are represented in some forms of modern art. We are looking, he said, at a “closed and atheistic world...a world of still life and dead matter which is no longer the substance of the resurrection.” But the Christian faith affirms that this mortal body of ours, because Christ shared our human nature, is destined for things beyond our power to imagine.
The Liturgy says that God "has restored the joy of our youth." Joy is there when you put yourself fully into something. Young children, when they laugh, are all laughter; when they cry they are all sadness. But as we grow up we learn to drag ourselves along: half-way into things and no more. Half in and half out. If you walked like that you would resemble a person 100 years old. We have to learn to go fully into everything we do and say and think: to die into everything. Then we will know something about resurrection.
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’
When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
When we are in doubt we return to what we know: the past. When we don’t know where we are going, we turn back. When Jesus was dead his disciples returned to their former way of life: they tried to go back to fishing. But “they caught nothing that night.” Even the past could give them no reassurance; they had nowhere to go. They had no future, they thought, because Jesus was dead; and now they seemed to have no past either. Tragedy and failure drove them into the present moment. It was in that cataclysmic Now that they saw Jesus. The Good News reveals itself in the Now. The Resurrection of Jesus is God's new deed.
Can I be said to ‘have’ the faith if I think of it only as an old ideology battling for survival against new? What about that cataclysmic Now that those broken-down disciples had to enter before they could see the Lord? There is a way of appearing very Catholic, and it is to claim to be more rooted in the past than anyone else. How could this be the proper emphasis? Our faith is not a form of nostalgia or antiquarianism. We are already too prone to slipping away into the past when the present is too painful. If we follow the same line with our faith, we will not be witnessing to the resurrection of Christ, but only offering one another bland assurances that convince no one, not even ourselves. Unless we experience this ‘dying to oneself’, our words will offer nothing but routes of escape into a reassuring past.
Many readers of the New Testament have noticed the two charcoal fires in John's gospel (18:18 and today’s reading); in fact it would be difficult to miss them: they both stand out clearly in the half-light. One of them marks Peter’s denial of his Lord, the other his rehabilitation. They are connected, as the best and the worst are always connected, the highest and the lowest, the holiest and the most sinful. It was to make such connections that the Word was made flesh (itself an astonishing connection). Making connections is God's work.
Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.
After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.
Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.
People did not recognise Jesus very easily when he appeared after his resurrection. Some thought they were seeing a ghost (Luke 24:37); he showed himself “under another form” to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Mark 16:12); and even Mary Magdalene thought at first that he was the gardener (John 20:15).
We give supreme authority to bodily sight: “seeing is believing.” Aristotle said that sight is “our principal source of knowledge.” But this kind of sight was not adequate to recognising the risen Christ. It requires a seeing from the heart and the spirit, not from the eyes. People who claim today to have seen apparitions give the impression that they have exceptional faith; but what they are doing is just going back to eyesight and suggesting that this is superior to faith. Religion is always only millimetres away from fantasy and projection; it can be naive beyond words. A woman who claimed to have had a vision of St Joseph was asked how she knew it was St Joseph. “Sure, doesn't everyone know what St Joseph looks like?” she replied.
God is not captured by the eye, nor even by the mind. “We cannot grasp what God is,” said St Thomas Aquinas. We cannot ‘grasp’ God – neither with our eyesight nor with our minds. God cannot be possessed in the way we possess a thing, or even a mental picture; it is the other way around: we are possessed by God; we are grasped by God.
Our faith is a bottomless ocean. How could it be otherwise? St Paul prays that the Ephesians, “knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond all knowledge… [will be] filled with the utter fulness of God” (Ephesians 3:19).
A last word. Look at the endings of the paragraphs: “They would not believe it,” “They did not believe them,” “Go out to the whole world and proclaim the Good News.” The first two don't prepare you for the third. Apparently you don't need perfect faith before you begin. It is given to you as you go. It is for use on the road, it is not for admiring in a wall-cabinet. If you are called to do some work for the Lord, just do it and grace will be given to you as you go. Grace is not given for tomorrow; it is always for now.
11 April [2nd Sunday of Easter]
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
In all three Liturgical cycles this is the gospel reading for this second Sunday of Easter. 'Doubting Thomas' makes his appearances at this point every year.
Is there anything to be said for doubt? Surely there is. It is a good thing to be able to doubt oneself (provided it doesn't become an addiction that cripples you), to doubt one’s ideas, one’s principles, one’s work, even one's very eyes at times.... It is a proof that your life is not on automatic pilot, that you have not finished thinking and weighing things up. Doubt is not always the opposite of faith; the real opposite of faith is a certain kind of fear. Fear makes you curl up and do nothing, or it makes you run away. Faith pushes you to take chances, to risk yourself, to pit yourself against difficulties. Thomas was a careful man, but he was not a fearful one; he was capable of fearless action: “Let us go to Jerusalem and die with him,” he said (John 11:16). It is not that Thomas lacked faith, it is simply that he did not want to be deluded.
He wanted to "see the holes that the nails made in his hands and put my finger into the holes they made…." He wanted to experience it for himself. The same John who tells this story about Thomas once wrote, "What we have heard, what we have seen with our own eyes, what we have watched and touched with our hands…this is our subject" (1 John 1:1). There is no blame to Thomas for wanting to experience the reality for himself. Isn't it what every disciple of Jesus has to do?
Thomas was also a thinking man; he always wanted to understand and figure things out. Once when Jesus was speaking obscurely about going away and said, “You know the way to where I am going,” Thomas cut in and said, “Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:4-5). It was a practical man’s question, and you can see the puzzled look on his face. It was puzzlement, not doubt. He didn't doubt Jesus or lack trust in him. Well, why was he missing from the group when Jesus appeared? (today’s reading). Isn't it very likely that he had gone away by himself to think? It would be entirely in character. We dishonour him when we call him ‘doubting Thomas’. We should call him ‘thinking Thomas’. There is no area of life more subject to delusion than religion. We have to thank Thomas for his distinctive combination of caution and courage.
Mary Magdalene was told by the Risen Lord (verses 17 and 18, just before the beginning of this reading) to "go and find the brothers." Obviously she found them here, in “the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews.”
“The fact that none of the disciples is mentioned by name and no number is given indicates that disciples as such are implied here, and the scene that follows is addressed to all disciples of Jesus” (F.J. Moloney, The Gospel of John). All are called to go out to the whole world with the Good News.
Fear had locked them in, but he sent them out: “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” “He breathed on them.” This is seen as an evocation of the creation story in Genesis, where God “breathed into [Adam’s] nostrils the breath of life” (2:7). Jesus' gift of the Spirit makes us a new creation.
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’
Nicodemus is an interesting character. He appears three times in John’s Gospel: in chapters 3, 7 and 19. In all three scenes he is hesitating and hanging back, or he is arriving too late. He appears a man of hesitation and half-action, the patron saint of all waverers and half-believers.
In his first appearance he comes to Jesus by night, because he is afraid for his reputation. (today’s reading). He was a leader, so he had to be careful and cover his tracks. Such a careful man finds it hard to hear what Jesus is saying about the Spirit. The Spirit is like the wind, Jesus is saying; “you hear its sound, but you don't know where it comes from or where it is going.” And you, Nicodemus, will be like that if you are born in the Spirit; “it is like that with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” What! - not know where I'm coming from or where I'm going? But I have this compulsion to know precisely that at every turn. Then, Nicodemus, you will never know more than you know now; it clings to you, and you cling to it.
In another of his appearances (chapter 7), instead of making an impassioned plea for Jesus he asks a half-hearted question: “Does our law condemn people without first hearing them...?” And instead of following it up, he leaves it hanging in mid-air. He was among other Pharisees, and a moment earlier the question had been asked (it was more a statement than a question), “Have any of the rulers or the Pharisees believed in him?” The sense of the question was, “Can't you see that no Pharisee believes in him!” In that atmosphere of certainty, Nicodemus’s timid question was totally ineffective.
In his third appearance (chapter 19) he was too late: Jesus was already dead. He brought myrrh and aloes to anoint the dead body. He could relate better to a dead Christ. He was not there at Pentecost. He was watching where he came from and where he was going. John’s gospel plays constantly on the theme or light and darkness. Nicodemus was a creature of the shadows, half-way between light and dark.
Jesus said: Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
In Hebrew and Aramaic, the scholars tell us, the same word means ‘spirit’, ‘breath’, and ‘wind’. These are well known and yet unknown realities. Of the four elements – fire, air, earth and water – only earth has fixed shapes; and in the long run even these shapes are not fixed. But the most volatile of the elements is air. The world is perpetually changing, and it’s hard to ‘get a fix on it,’ as they say. But do we have to get a fix on it before we can live in it? Not at all. We live quite successfully with the unfixed and the unknown. In fact there is no fixity anywhere, except as a thought in the mind.
“Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything” (Qoheleth 11:5). The words of Jesus in today’s passage may be an echo of that verse. “The wind blows where it pleases…. It is like that with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” It is the same then with the Holy Spirit as with wind, spirit, breath….
Alan Watts once remarked that “a certain type of mind is frightened by the mutability, the elusiveness, and the mystery of life, and thinks of salvation as a state of everlasting fixity and certainty from which the disconcerting elements of spontaneity, surprise and mystery are largely removed.”
You cannot see the wind, you only see the effect it has on things: you see the leaves on the trees moving, you see waves of movement on the grass, or you see the destructive power of a storm. The Holy Spirit is called wind: the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost was likened to “a powerful wind from heaven” (Acts 2:1). You cannot see the Spirit, you can only see the effects on people who live by the Spirit.
Jesus said, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’
“God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it.” It is much easier to condemn the world than to save it, much easier to say what you disapprove of than to go out and do something useful for other people.
For a couple of years I was receiving a newsletter from an extreme right-wing group of Catholics. The contents were pure poison: slander, calumny, detraction – all the vices whose names we learned in the penny Catechism. The local bishop was the special object of their hate. I frequently asked them to remove my name from their mailing list, but the hateful thing kept coming. A friend told me how to deal with it: don't write ‘Return to sender’ on the envelope; write ‘Refused’. The senders then have to pay the return post! I did so, and it never came again. (Even wickedness has its price: in that case, the price of a postage stamp.) That group is probably still condemning everyone... but not to me!
It is easier to condemn than to do good. “In the evening of life you will be examined in love,” said John of the Cross. What you have condemned won't figure on the exam-paper at all – it’s the wrong subject. “Those who believe in him are not condemned,” John wrote. Of course he didn't write English! He would be astonished at some of our uses of the word ‘belief’. We speak, for example, about ‘nominal believers’. For John, such couldn't exist. Nor, I think, for earlier speakers of English. The word ‘belief’ comes from an old word, ‘lief’, used by Shakespeare but now obsolete, meaning ‘love’. There cannot be real belief without love. If John were to come back he might say to us, “Don’t tell me what you ‘believe’; tell me what you love.”
Jesus said, ‘The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all. He testifies to what he has seen and heard, yet no one accepts his testimony. Whoever has accepted his testimony has certified this, that God is true. He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God's wrath.’
“The Father loves the Son and has entrusted everything into his hands.” There are many similar phrases in John’s gospel. “The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he is doing” (5:20). “Jesus knew that the Father had put everything into his hands” (13:3). All that the Father has is mine” (16:15). “Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you” (17:7). The Son in turn gives everything to the Father, “All I have is yours, and all you have is mine” (17:10).
Jesus, in turn, has given us everything, “I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father” (15:15). “The glory you have given me, I have given them” (17:22).
The word ‘everything’ seems to be God's kind of word; and the word ‘all’. It was the fundamental command, the ‘Schema Israel’, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut 6:5). God is not interested in how much it amounts to, so long as it is everything: the widow’s mite was “all she had to live on” (Mk 12:44). We may not have much, but we have everything! When we give everything we have we are being drawn into the life of the Trinity.
Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.
When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.
When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’ When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
In Christian art, angels are depicted with wings; they are imagined sitting in the air. But we belong on the earth; we sit on the ground. In today’s gospel passage Jesus invited the people to sit on the ground.
Sitting on the ground is a symbol of poverty and powerlessness; it means we have no illusions of grandeur. We don’t often sit on the ground nowadays, and almost never at Mass. But when we are at Mass we are spiritually those disciples in today’s reading, sitting on the ground in humility and simplicity, sharing our poverty and (because of it) sharing the Lord's gift. Miracles seem to happen in situations of scarcity rather than plenty. Where there is plenty there is no need of miracles. Where there is plenty you don't have to struggle, you don't have to come up against realities too painfully, you just ease your way through with your credit card. But in the story those people had almost nothing. They had only five loaves to feed thousands. John says they were barley loaves. This was the cheapest kind of bread; in fact barley was really considered animal-feed. It is only the very poor who would eat barley loaves.
The miracle is that some kind of abundance came from that poverty. This is not the crude ‘gospel of prosperity’ that you sometimes hear from radio and television preachers. No, John would be sickened by such an interpretation. He is not talking about business, but about the Eucharist. Whatever divides us from one another (greed, self-sufficiency, illusions of grandeur) divides us also from God and God's gift.
When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.
This is a total change of scene from what went just before (yesterday’s reading). God's loving providence - with green grass to lie on, plenty of company and abundant food - seems now very far away. Instead, “it was now dark... and the sea was getting rough.” Just like life: a sudden change of fortunes.
As in other cultures, water had a double meaning for the Jews of old: it was both a benign and a destructive element. God is “a fountain of living water” (Jer 2:13); but on the other hand, the enemy can be “like an overflowing torrent” (Jer 47:2). They especially feared the chaos of the sea, which brought remembrance of the Deluge.
The associations were likely to have been of the second kind for the disciples caught in a storm at night on the Sea of Galilee. But then Jesus suddenly appeared “walking on the sea.” They were terrified, but he said, “Don’t be afraid, it is I.” A word-for-word translation of the Greek would be, “I am.” This recalls the divine “I am” of Exodus 3:14. A constant theme in the Old Testament is the power of God over the sea. It was by such power that he delivered them from the Egyptians in the Exodus. Clearly John wants this association to be present to the reader.
What meaning can this strange story have for us today? Perhaps this: the Lord can come to us in the least likely medium. We seat ourselves on the solid ground of common sense and logic, but God is well able to do without them!
18 April [3rd Sunday of Easter]
[The disciples] told what had happened on the road, and how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.
While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.
The disciples thought they were seeing a ghost, and Jesus was at pains to assure them that he was no ghost, no projection. Ghosts don’t say, "Have you anything here to eat?" If Jesus is not truly risen he is only a ghost. Ghosts are the past that didn’t die properly. If Jesus did not truly die he is not truly risen. He had to die in the past so that he could be with us in the present, "the first-born from the dead." We too have to die to the past if we are to meet him where he is. "If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his" (Romans 6:5).
When we can find no security in the present we look for it in the past. "The past at least is secure," said some failed politician. But while the past may give a feeling of security, it does not give security - because time is moving, not fixed. Or we look for security in the future. We are always looking for a railing to hold onto, because the ground under our feet is moving. I always feel we would prefer an unresurrected Christ. He would be fixed and immovable, altogether more stable. We could own and control him. But he is risen, he cannot be owned, he is the vehicle of the Spirit which blows where it wills.
God "has restored the joy of our youth." Joy is there when we put ourselves fully into something. Small children, when they laugh, are all laughter; when they cry they are all sadness. But a little later we learn to drag ourselves along: half-way into things and no more: half in and half out, hovering like ghosts. If we walked like that we would resemble someone a hundred years old. When we walk freely we put all our weight on the forward foot; we entrust ourselves to the future and we leave the past behind. Ghosts don’t do that; they don’t walk, they don’t do anything. We real human beings have to learn to go fully into everything we do and say and think, to ‘die into’ everything. Then we will know something about resurrection.
The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
“You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” We tend to approach everything and everyone, looking for our needs to be met. This is to be a beggar. It will certainly fall to us at times to be beggars, but we don't need to become full-time beggars. If we always come to Jesus only looking for our needs to be met, we are calling ourselves his beggars, not his brothers and sisters – God's beggars, not God's children. We are invited to come to Jesus to see the glory of God, and to God to do God's will.
In John's gospel, miracles are not so much acts of compassion (as in the other gospels) as signs of the glory of Christ. A sign points away from itself, but people weren't interested in looking beyond, he said. This is a distinctive theme of John’s gospel. John’s gospel was written many years after the others, and his aim was not just to recount the deeds that Jesus did (they were already familiar from oral tradition and from the other gospels) but to try further to discern their meaning. When John recounts a miracle by Jesus he follows up with a long discourse to clarify its meaning. The feeding of the five thousand, for example, is followed in today’s (and tomorrow’s) reading by a discourse on the Bread of Life. The healing of the blind man goes with Jesus’ claim to be the Light of the World (chapter 9). The raising of Lazarus goes with his claim to be the resurrection and the life (chapter 11).
The feeding of the crowd has a deeper meaning. Jesus wants to point to a deeper hunger and thirst in us than the obvious ones. "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water" (John 4:10); "My food is to do the will of him who sent me” (John 4:34). The heart is insatiable, its hunger is greater than the stomach’s. The emptiness of the heart is a common theme in modern literature. Franz Kafka, whose disturbing fiction gave an early taste of the oppression and despair of the 20th century, wrote in his diary, “An endless, dreary Sunday afternoon...its every hour a year. By turns I walked despairingly down empty streets and lay quietly on the couch....”
When Jesus spoke (in today’s reading) about “the food that the Son of Man gives you,” he was speaking (according to most commentators), not yet specifically about the Eucharist, but about his entire “work”: his revelation. He is the embodied revelation of the Father; he is, as one scholar put it, “God's down-to-earth providence.” He is, as the first verse of John's gospel puts it, “the Word” – logos in Greek. But in Greek, logos means more than what we mean by ‘word’: it means, meaning, harmony, inner principle.... Jesus is all this. He is all the realities that Kafka, and millions of us, feel the need of on a Sunday afternoon.
The crowd said to Jesus, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
They said, “What sign are you going to give us then?” But he had just given them a sign! – a sign that impressed them so much that they wanted to make him king (verse 15). How are we to understand this?
When you look at the original you notice that the verbs are in the present tense, not in the future, as this and other translations have it. So the people do not seem to be asking for another sign, but rather for the meaning of the sign he had just given, as if to say: “What is the meaning of this sign you are giving us…? Explain what you are doing!” They themselves are comparing his sign with that of Moses, who likewise produced food in the wilderness. Some Jews saw Moses as a king, so these are suggesting that Jesus should allow them to make him king (verse 15).
Jesus replied, “I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.” Again the question of tenses: in this case Jesus shifts their statement about Moses from the past to the present tense. The real provider of bread in the desert was God, and it is the same God (“my Father”) who in the present moment is providing bread for his people. But Jesus is more than a provider of bread like Moses; he is himself the bread that the Father is providing.
Like the Samaritan woman (chapter 4), they misinterpreted his statement, thinking he was talking about bread in the ordinary sense, just as she thought he was talking only about well-water. Later on, when they realised he was referring to himself, and not to bread, they were rather disappointed: “They began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven’" (verse 41).
Over the centuries bread has gathered hundreds of associations; in the full Oxford Dictionary no fewer than seven columns are devoted to its various shades of meaning and the various idioms that have clustered around it. It has been called “the staff of life” - the walking-stick one leans on to keep going - and it has even come to be a symbol of life itself. When Jesus said “I am the bread of life,” he meant a full cluster of meanings, not just one. Bread has associations that bring us back to our childhood; we know that something is being said about life in the concrete, not just life in the abstract. The faith is as real and as homely as the smell of your mother’s baking.
When we think about the Eucharist it is the ordinariness of bread that is so astonishing - so astonishingly ordinary! Jesus wants to be ordinary for us. “A very precious relic,” wrote Meister Eckhart, “is not willingly allowed to be touched or seen. Therefore He clothed Himself in the likeness of bread, just as my bodily food is transformed by my soul, so that no corner of my nature is not united with it.... There is not so much as a needle's point that is not united with it. What I ate a fortnight ago is as much one with my soul as what I received in my mother's womb. So it is that whoever receives this food purely becomes as truly one with it as my flesh and blood are one with my soul.”
Jesus said to crowd, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”
“Whoever comes to me will never be hungry,” he said. But they had come, and they were hungry! They had followed him up the mountain (John 6:3), bringing no food, and they were famished.
As always in John's gospel, there is another layer of meaning. The food they had eaten was real enough, but it symbolised another kind of food that he was providing for another kind of hunger. “I am the bread of life,” he said. I am what satisfies the deepest needs of humanity. I am the most intimate reality in your life: as intimate to you, as sustaining, as the food in your mouth. I am the one who keeps your awareness bright like a lamp, your heart warm, your will healthy, strong and gentle. I am the one who enables you to raise your eyes, to see beauty and glory in the world, and to open the eye of your spirit till you see God....
In a bookshop I saw the old penny catechism, which I hadn't seen in many years. Someone with an excess of nostalgia had it republished. It was strange to turn those pages again. The words were familiar, and somehow terrible – less for what they said than for what they didn’t say. In the first section, which dealt with God, God was described as Creator and Lord of all things, who rewards the good and punishes the wicked. ‘He’ was well positioned to do this, since he “sees our most secret thoughts and actions.” Nowhere did it say that God loved us – still less that God was love. I was suddenly aware of how damaged many of us were by that catechism. There was no knowledge of God in it. “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8). Mischief isn't only in what you say, it is also in what you fail to say. To fail to say, in a section specifically on God, that God is love, or that God loves us, is to show oneself to have been untouched by the New Testament.
“Whoever comes to me will never be hungry,” he said. That catechism left many starving, and it is not surprising that many starved to death spiritually. Today's gospel reading merits long meditation.
Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
“No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father,” he said. We cannot do it for ourselves – or for anyone else. It is a work of grace, God’s attractive power, not human pushing. In other times it was believed that we could be pushed into faith, or at least pushed towards it. But being pushed makes a person resist. It has often been said that if good were forbidden, more people would do it. The best way to move a person is to attract rather than push: we are more easily drawn from in front than driven from behind.
St Augustine commented on this verse, “He did not say lead, but draw. This ‘violence’ is done to the heart, not to the body.... Believe and you come; love and you are drawn. Do not suppose here any rough and uneasy violence. It is gentle, it is sweet; it is the sweetness that draws you. Is not a sheep drawn when fresh grass is shown to it in its hunger? Yet I imagine that it is not driven bodily on, but bound by desire. In this way too you come to Christ: do not imagine long journeying; in the very place where you believe, there you come. For to him who is everywhere we come by love, not by sailing.”
Attraction is always less clear and often appears less satisfactory than compulsion, but that's our life. Jesus rejected the way of compulsion and chose the way of love. It is messier than any other, sometimes almost chaotic. But the wisdom of the Gospel tells us it is the only one that has no built-in trap.
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’ He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
St John’s gospel makes effective use of misunderstanding as a method of teaching: ch. 3 (Nicodemus), ch. 4 (the woman at the well), and today’s passage.
The phrase “eat my flesh and drink my blood” was wide open to misunderstanding, especially, one must say, by his particular audience. There was an expression “to eat someone’s flesh”, meaning to slander a person; this could have put them on the wrong track for a start. In addition, their Scriptures had some rather ghoulish texts like Isaiah’s, “I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh, and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with wine” (Isaiah 49:26). Such texts were about vengeance, not about intimacy and communion. There was also the more neutral expression “flesh and blood”, meaning just human life: as when Jesus said, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven” (Mt 16:17).
His listeners were in fact puzzled. And when they asked for an explanation, he didn’t offer one. There has been no shortage of people down the ages who were wholly eager to offer explanations: some in the terms of pagan philosophy. But what do we do with things we have ‘explained’ (the word means ‘flattened out’)? We put them aside. The words of Jesus stand there, calling us to something deeper than the intellectual satisfaction that explanations give. We are hungry in deeper places than that.
Christians tended to see the separate mention of flesh and flood as a sign of the death of Jesus, but the more common view among scholars now is that it means: the whole living Christ. To eat is to assimilate completely: your food becomes you. We are invited to assimilate deeply the full presence and reality of Christ. When you become knotted up in technical ifs and buts about how Christ is present in the Eucharist, just cut the knot and go back to the basic meaning. Jesus himself gave no explanation when asked. Read the text again and see for yourself.
Many of the disciples said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Commenting on John’s gospel, St John Chrysostom (347 AD – 407) wrote, "When questioning about the ‘how’ comes in, there comes in with it unbelief." Is faith capable of standing up to careful scrutiny? Defenders of faith usually say a defiant yes, while unbelievers say an equally defiant no. Perhaps this puts it too simply.
I have a friend who is a karate expert. I once asked him how he could smash a concrete block with his forehead without injuring himself. “I can do it because I don't doubt,” he replied immediately. A doubt, a hesitation, a shadow of fear: these are all forms of withdrawal, he said. When part of your mind is withdrawing while the other part is trying to push ahead, there is an inner civil war and consequent self-defeat. It is not the concrete block that defeats you, but you yourself. If you were to quote John Chrysostom’s saying to such a man, he would nod his head in agreement.
Faith is more like karate than it is like a philosophy. (Of course there is more to it than this; I am saying this for the purpose of comparison only.) It is often treated in academic circles, even by its defenders, as a kind of weak philosophy, now on the backfoot, an imprecise theory of everything. But it is first and foremost a manner of living. Jesus had little time for explanations. When Nicodemus asked him how a grown man could be born again, he didn’t say, “Let me explain it to you.” He said “Unless one is born again...” (John 3:5). And when asked how he could give his body as food, he provided no explanation; again he simply said, “Unless you eat...” (John 6:53). In each case he just placed the mystery there once again.
Does this mean that we stiffen up when people ask for an explanation of some matter in the faith? (They are quite entitled to explanations of church policy!) No, explanations are fascinating; we have to follow them in order to see the point where they fail. They are at their best at the very point of failure; that is where they really have something to teach us. They are a little like koans in Zen. But don't attempt to do theology without faith – you could hurt your head!
Many of the intellectual difficulties we have with the Faith come from the fact that we bring the wrong kind of mind to it. The modern world has largely lost the power of symbolic thinking and replaced it with analysis. Analysis in itself is a powerful mode of thought, but it is not the whole of thought. Even people whose conscious minds are fixed in an analytical mode are still moved unconsciously by symbolism. Our world (especially the world of advertising) is filled with symbols of contentment, pleasure, fulfilment, happiness; and these work on us all, no matter how analytical we may be. We are all the more easily manipulated by symbolism when we don't recognise its reality, and advertisers know this well. Our Faith can withstand analysis, but you cannot live on analysis. “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life” (v. 63).
25 April [4th Sunday of Easter]
Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father."
Shepherds did not have sheepdogs in Jesus' time. They didn't need them, because sheep would follow their shepherd of their own free will. Jesus called himself a shepherd: the People of God are not to be driven by fear but led freely by love. In the early centuries the figure of Jesus as a shepherd was a favourite one, and the earliest representation of him (some art historians claim) shows him as the good shepherd.
Shepherds were humble folk. If Jesus had been born in the inn at Bethlehem rather than in the stable, the shepherds would not have been allowed in to visit him; this was the first signal of his accessibility. St Thomas Aquinas saw the same wisdom in the incarnation itself: the Word became flesh, he said, so that God would be accessible to us in Jesus.
The good shepherd, Jesus said, "lays down his life for his sheep." Who were the bad shepherds, then? Not the literal shepherds, the simple men on the hillside looking after their sheep. Not these, but the 'shepherds of the people', the leaders. In the Old Testament the term was applied to kings, royal officers, the elders, all who have any kind of authority. In nearly all Scriptural passages such 'shepherds' were being faulted for neglecting their responsibilities to the 'flock', the people. In Ezekiel 34 for example they are being severely reprimanded for neglecting "the weak, the sick the wounded, the strayed, the lost," for fattening themselves instead of tending to the needs of the flock. It is in contrast to these and to the religious authorities that Jesus calls himself the good shepherd. On every page of the gospel we find him seeking out these marginalised people: public sinners, lepers, Samaritans, the sick, the tormented…. He stood up to the authorities for their sake, he defied the systems that made them outcasts, he laid down his life rather than turn his back on them and kow-tow to the authorities.
The imagery of shepherding has become so much part of the Christian mind that it becomes almost invisible. The words 'pastor' and 'pastoral' come from the Latin for shepherd. A bishop's crozier is really a sort of stylish shepherd's stick. Those ancient shepherds carried a stick not to beat and prod their sheep but to beat off any wild animals that threatened the flock.
In today's reading, mention of the shepherd's death seems very sudden and unexpected, but in its own setting perhaps it was less so. This fidelity of the shepherd to his flock continues even into modern times. W.M. Thomson (+1894), describing his travels in the Holy Land, wrote, "A poor faithful fellow last Spring, between Tiberias and Tabor, instead of fleeing, actually fought three Bedouin robbers until he was hacked to pieces with their khanjars, and died among the sheep he was defending."
Yes, your bishop and your pastor are expected to die if necessary in your defence. Your parish priest too. In fact all Christians are challenged to lay down their lives if necessary for others. The cross of Christ is not an ornament to hang on the wall but a pattern of Christian life.
"Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers." Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
Today is known as 'Good Shepherd Sunday', and each year the gospel reading focuses on some aspect of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. This year (Year A) it is "I am the gate of the sheepfold" (Jn 10:1-10). Year B: "The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep" (Jn 10:11-18). Year C: "My sheep hear my voice … I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish" (Jn 10:27-30).
When Jesus said, "All who came before me are thieves and bandits," he can hardly have meant to include the great prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel…. But there were plenty of his contemporaries who deserved to be described as spiritual thieves and bandits. They are always a plentiful species - or 'we' if the hat fits. The expression 'a wolf in sheep's clothing' we owe to Aesop, whose stories have delighted and instructed children and adults alike for 25 centuries. "A wolf found great difficulty in getting at the sheep owing to the vigilance of the shepherd and his dogs. But one day it found the skin of a sheep that had been flayed and thrown aside, so it put it on over its own pelt and strolled down among the sheep. The lamb that belonged to the sheep, whose skin the wolf was wearing, began to follow the wolf in the sheep's clothing; so, leading the lamb a little apart, he soon made a meal of her."
A deceiver has to look like the real thing – has to look and sound genuine. Otherwise he will deceive nobody. Someone can quote and preach the Gospel to you, making all the right sounds and looking very serious, while robbing you spiritually – robbing you even of the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit in you: your real wisdom, your understanding…your fortitude…your joy…. Jesus gives the Spirit, the deceiver steals it away. You are in far less danger from someone who doesn’t sound in the least like a Christian.
The genuine shepherd "goes ahead of the sheep and they follow him." Perhaps that is the key to discernment. Do your shepherds go before you into the crises and the mysteries, or just tell you what to do and then just look on? Would they suffer for you? Would they lay down their lives – or even just their pride, or a generous measure of their time? If they arereluctant to do this, then beware of them.
But Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He goes before us (as shepherds did in those days). The great 20th-century theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, wrote, “No matter how low you fall in your life, you will meet Jesus coming up from deeper down to meet you.”
In the Palestine of Jesus' time (and still today) sheep follow the shepherd, they are not driven from behind like cattle. Jesus often referred to his ‘flock’. We are not driven along but rather attracted; we are not fleeing before angry shouts but following an encouraging voice. Sheep follow their own shepherd because they recognise his voice. When shepherds meet and sit down to talk, their flocks intermingle, and when they go their separate ways the two flocks separate and follow, never making a mistake. But when a sheep is sick, she will follow just anyone.
At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”
It was the Festival of Lights, otherwise called the Festival of the Dedication, a week-long celebration commemorating the consecration of the Temple after its desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes about two centuries before Christ. Its culmination was (and still is) on the 25th day of the Jewish month called Chislev, which corresponds to December. It was a joyful feast, and everywhere was full of lights.
Yet, “It was winter,” says John – unnecessarily, it might seem, as he had already given the exact date. But scholars suggest that the phrase has the same significance as “It was night” at the Last Supper (13:30). ‘Winter’ is a word that evokes bleakness and darkness. The dark shadows are gathering.
Against this backdrop Jesus stands out as Light of the World and the Consecrated One. “I am the light of the world” (8:12), “I have come into the world as light” (12:44). They quiz him: “If you are the Messiah [= the Anointed One], tell us plainly.” Yes, the Father has consecrated him and sent him into the world (10:36).
He is the new Temple, the new Place of Meeting. We can think of the mind of Jesus, the ‘Christ-mind’ (see Philippians 2:5), as a vast lighted Temple, a Tent of Meeting with God.
They had a clear label in mind: Messiah. Either he fitted it or he did not. We use labels in this way to keep the world in place, to avoid thinking. “You are not my sheep,” he told them; in other words, you are not listening to my voice, you are just arranging labels. You are not looking either: “The works I do...proclaim who I am” (verse 26).
I know a man who is forever buying the last kind of hearing-aid. He is also famous for not considering other people’s points of view. I heard someone tell him a home truth one day: “All the hearing-aids in the world won’t help you, your problem is your mind, not your ears!”
Jesus cried aloud: “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness. I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge, for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.”
Jesus constantly referred beyond himself: “whoever sees me sees the one who sent me.” Light does that; it is invisible in itself, but it makes everything else visible.
But “the one who sent me,” the Father, is also invisible! – the Father who “lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:14-16). Clearly, light is just a metaphor for God. It is a particularly good one: in fact the word ‘divinity’ comes, they tell us, from a Sanskrit root meaning ‘to shine’. But it is still just a metaphor.
St Augustine wrote a very clear paragraph about it. “Urged to reflect upon myself, I entered under your [God’s] guidance the innermost places of my being; but only because You had become my helper was I able to do so. I entered, then, and with the vision of my spirit, such as it was, I saw the changeless light far above my spiritual ken and transcending my mind: not this common light which every carnal eye can see, nor any light of the same order; but greater, as though this common light were shining much more powerfully, far more brightly, and so extensively as to fill the universe. The light I saw was not the common light at all, but something different, utterly different, from all those things. Nor was it higher than my mind in the sense that oil floats on water or the sky is above the earth; it was exalted because this very light made me, and I was below it because by it I was made. Anyone who knows truth knows this light.”
This light is now our birthright. Still, darkness clings to us, or rather we cling to it. We are not imprisoned; we imprison ourselves. Milton wrote somewhere about being one’s own dungeon. Like creatures kept too long in the dark, we are afraid of the light and of the open spaces. We cannot be forced out, because the dungeon is ourselves – we would bring it with us. But we are invited and charmed and coaxed out by the one who called himself “the light of the world.”
Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfil the scripture, ‘The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”
We have now reached a turning-point in John's gospel. Jesus’ public ministry is finished, and he is entering the phase of his passion and death. A scholar wrote, "In the first part of the gospel, which here closes, Jesus lives in complete obedience to the Father; in the second part he will die in the same obedience."
We are at the Last Supper, and he has just washed the disciples’ feet. This reversed the normal practice: it was a courtesy for a disciple to wash a rabbi’s feet. Particularly because of the moment in which it was done, this was a very compelling teaching. Like the Eucharist, it would be remembered forever. In John’s gospel there is no account of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Instead there is the washing of feet. When Jesus sat down again he said, in approximately similar words, “Do this in memory of me.” It is the Eucharist overflowing into practice.
The feet are the lowliest part of the body in a literal sense, and the farthest away from the head. And they are the most truthful, because they are farthest from the mouth. They are willing to go where hands would disdain to go; and when we touch something with the foot we haven't really established any personal contact with it. Yes, the feet are the most disowned part of the body. Yet they are our most fundamental and on-going contact with reality. And they are not the insensitive clods that they may appear to be: they are so highly sensitive that a foot-massage affects the whole body.
“If I do this for you,” he said, “so should you for one another.” The washing of feet stands symbolically for every lowly service we can perform for one another.
Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
The metaphor of ‘path’ is universal in spirituality. It is so deeply embedded that it scarcely seems a metaphor at all. The metaphor extends itself into ‘climbing’, and gives us the titles of many classics: The Ladder of Monks (Guigo II), The Ladder of Perfection (Walter Hilton), The Ascent of Mount Carmel (St John of the Cross), etc.
In this passage Jesus spoke of a ‘place’. This too is a metaphor, of course. Eternal life has no geographical location. He also spoke of the path (the “way”) in this passage: “You know the way to the place….”
Metaphors are not strictly true or false in the way that literal speech is. For this reason they don't exclude one another – as is clear from the way Jesus used two apparently opposite ones in the same sentence.
Let’s dwell for a moment on the metaphor of place. The ‘place’ of spirituality is always here, this place – just as the time is always now. Are we not already here now? Yes and no. Physically I am always ‘here’, and the time is always ‘now’. But in every other way I can be simply absent. From this angle, spiritual development is less like making a journey than waking up from a dream. In the dream you are in San Francisco or in Paris. But to come back to reality you don't need to book a flight, you don't have to travel at all. All you need is an alarm clock, or someone’s elbow in your ribs.
An older translation had “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” The word comes from Latin manere, ‘to remain’. ‘Mansion’ means a place where you stay. In a hyper-active age it is helpful to be reminded not to move! Let’s hear from Meister Eckhart: “People say: 'Alas, sir, I wish I stood as well with God or had as much devotion and were as much at peace with God as others are…. I can never manage it unless I am there or there, or do this or that; I must get away from it all, or go and live in a cell or a cloister.' In fact, the reason lies entirely with yourself and with nothing else. It is self-will, though you may not know it or believe it…. Though we may think one should flee these things or seek those things – places or people or methods, or company or deeds – this is not the reason why methods or things hold you back: what prevents you is you yourself in the things, for you have a wrong attitude to things. Begin therefore with yourself and forget yourself.”
It is difficult to remain ‘here and now’; we are forever pushing on to something else. Peter thinks Jesus should be doing something ‘nobler’ than washing their feet. Thomas complains that they don't know where he is going - implying that they need a better view of the destination. Philip wants a vision: “Show us the Father, and that will be enough.” All are unsatisfied with what they actually have; they want something ‘higher’.
Jesus points to what they already have: “Thomas...I am the way; Philip...whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
About the same time that John's gospel was being written, Clement of Rome was writing to the Corinthians, “There was a time when you were... satisfied with the provisions of Christ.” (Evidently that day was gone.) Satisfied with what Christ provides for the journey. Now they were looking for something more.
Disciples of every age—including our own—seem to want more than is given.