This morning’s Gospel reading is John 14:15–21:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him. But you know him, because he remains with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me, because I live and you will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me. And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him.”
Back in the dark ages — and by this I mean 1980 — a perfume commercial had a memorable run on American television. “If you want to capture someone’s attention,” actress Sean Young said nearly sotto voce while pitching a fragrance called Nuance by Coty, “whisper.” The only nuanced aspect of that commercial was the name of the perfume, as those who were around at the time might recall, but the slogan was memorable because it hit on an important truth about communication and about life. The most valuable truths speak for themselves and need no ostentation.
I learned this early in life, even though the implications of the lesson took years to really sink in. My first job was at a local pizza shop near my high school, owned at the time by an Italian-American man from New York City named Sam, called Avenue 3 Pizza and Subs. (It’s still there, but under different ownership.) Sam was at the time the loudest and most foul-mouthed man I’d ever met, even louder and more profane than we pretenders in high school. The first few days he terrified me, even though he treated me well, because I didn’t realize that that was Sam’s default setting. That was Sam in a good mood, and after a week or so, I began to relax. It was when Sam spoke in a lower voice and stopped swearing, I learned, that you were in real trouble. When Sam was angry, he didn’t need to yell or swear to get you shaking in your boots.
Coty and Sam hardly coined this wisdom, of course. We can go all the way back to 1 Kings 19:11-13, when Elijah meets the Lord at Mount Horeb. Elijah came to a cave and made camp, having fled the Israelites for their hostility to the prophets and the altars. God tells Elijah to stand on the mountaintop to hear his answer:
And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Eli’jah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Eli’jah?”
True power and authority does not require an overwhelming display, although it doesn’t necessarily eschew it either. Brute force can impose wills, but that becomes slavery, and it also does not convert; it merely subdues, and only for a time.
In the time of Christ, the Israelites expected the Messiah to come as a military leader who would restore the Davidic kingdom and throw off the occupiers — at that time, the Romans. They expected the Lord to give them the power to subdue and to dominate, as David and Solomon had in the golden days of a united Israel. That unfortunately mistook the purpose of the kingdom, which was to serve as a nation of priests for the conversion of the world. Israel (and later Israel and Judah) had been given many chances to keep faith with the Lord on that mission of salvation, and had repeatedly betrayed it by clinging to their status as a worldly military and economic power. Rather than convert through wisdom and faithfulness, the kings corrupted their purpose and their kingdoms, crumbling away.
The Lord sent Jesus to exercise true power through obedience and caritas. In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus is about to be handed over for His Passion, and instructs his disciples for the final time before His death and resurrection. By remaining true to His word, Jesus promises, the nascent church will receive the Holy Spirit in the hearts of its apostles and disciples, giving them the strength to spread the Gospel. Jesus did not send a conquering army to impose the will of God by use of force. He sent His disciples out to speak of caritas and of the peace of Christ.
In our first reading from Acts, we see an early manifestation of the success of God’s will. Philip goes to Samaria, a place visited by Jesus but also a land which had feuded with the Judeans over the location of temple sacrifice and the proper worship of the Lord. Philip works miracles there simply by “proclaiming the Christ to them” and performing miraculous works — healings and exorcisms. He did not go to impose the Jerusalem version of faith by bringing temple guards, and yet nevertheless Philip succeeded in baptizing many Samaritans. Peter and John later followed up with what we would now call confirmation — laying on hands and passing the Holy Spirit to them.
This is true meekness, a term often understood in scripture. In both the Old and New Testaments, the omnipotent living God is often described as “meek”; Jesus uses the word Himself more than once. “Meek” does not mean weak; in fact, it suggests the opposite. Meek refers to power abated for mercy, and the more power that is abated, the more merciful meekness becomes.
Peter wrote about the need to offer Christ’s Gospel in meekness in our second reading today from his first epistle:
Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that be the will of God, than for doing evil.
The church under Peter’s stewardship has the same mission as the Davidic kingdom on which it was based. It has the same authority as its predecessor as well. But the manner in which the mission succeeds is not by conquest or by brute force in other ways; it is through caritas and witness. We speak softly and with love because Christ wills it, and because it gives the best witness for Christ. It offers no reason for opposition, and it shames those who oppose it with force and willfulness.
We do not need to whisper, of course, but we do not need to shout and berate either. The Lord is not found in the earthquake, the fire, or the shrieking wind, because He does not need to be. He speaks the truth through His Word, and gives us the strength to do the same. And that’s all that we need for His mission.
The front-page image is “The Forerunner of Christ with Saints and Martyrs,” Fra Angelico, 1423-4, on display at the National Gallery in London, UK.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.