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.”
In this pandemic, we are seeing an amplification of what it means to be human in a fallen world. We see great heroism in people who risk their lives to heal others and as always to keep us safe in times of disorder. Smaller acts of courage in keeping sustenance available and people employed as best as possible are in ample evidence around us. Even the debate over just how we do all these things shows us the interconnectedness we share, and how much we need each other to advance — even if we can’t always agree on just how to do so.
This pandemic has also amplified the downside of the human experience, too — the personal isolation and individual experience of interiority. Lockdowns, sheltering in place, and social distancing emphasize the risk of losing those connections in the world. We have cut off many of those social ties that allow us to live as communal beings, which not only remind us of the troubles of others but also keep us from having a sense of isolation. It is too easy to feel forgotten at any time but especially now, and to despair of having any real value in the world.
One passage in today’s Gospel reading struck me as particularly resonant now. “I will not leave you orphans,” Jesus tells His disciples in the time between the Last Supper and His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. “I will come to you … I am in my Father and you are in me and I am in you.” This comes just before the disciples themselves scatter before the temple authorities and the Romans, abandoning Jesus and each other briefly out of fear and despair. Jesus sees this, as He admonishes Peter for his bravado, and He wants to reassure the disciples that no one is truly alone who accepts the Father into his heart.
Jesus understands this feeling of loneliness and despair through His human nature, as well as through His experience in the desert after baptism. In Luke 4, we read about the forty days of temptation from Satan in His isolation from the rest of humanity. He had gone hungry and had no other connection to humanity, the kind of connection that His human nature would have craved and which His divine nature would provide.
It is in that state where Jesus becomes most vulnerable to the temptations of sin and despair. That is also the state in which we become the most vulnerable to both as well. Even if we are wandering in the wilderness of Netflix and have a full fridge, we are still wandering without our normal connections to friends, families, and communities of faith that sustain us. Our isolation tells us that nothing matters; no one is around to remind us that we matter. In that state, we can easily fall into despair, and into sin.
In fact, we have predisposed ourselves to isolation through original sin. Adam and Eve chose to “go it alone” by attempting to make themselves equal or rival to God through disobedience in Eden and to determine for ourselves what is right and wrong. Their disobedience speaks to our impulse to do the same — to refuse to listen to the Word of God and to follow His commandments. Not only does that separate us from the Father, but from each other as well, and it only took one generation to demonstrate that with Cain and Abel.
Jesus came to heal that breach for all time by offering forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit to heal our hearts. If we close our hearts to the Lord, we are left with nothing but the material world, where we are all essentially orphans. It is through the Father that we are all truly connected in our identity as spiritual beings as well as material beings — as children of God made in His image. It is in that sense that we truly live, as Jesus instructs in his passage, and that we truly love as well.
The disciples recovered themselves after the Passion and pulled together for the Resurrection because they had grasped and glimpsed that promise. Yes, they had built a sense of community together in a normal cultural sense, but they had established a spiritual community as well. They came back together when running and isolation may have made a lot more sense in the dangerous days of the crucifixion, and prepared — knowingly or not — for Christ’s return. After that, they stayed in Jerusalem as a community while waiting for Pentecost and the Holy Spirit to connect them more firmly with the Lord, through the Lord to each other, and through all of that more firmly to all of us as well.
That is the connection that binds us together as children of God. Our faith and open hearts in the Lord help us to recognize that all of us are brothers and sisters to each other, all with the same struggles with sin and despair, especially in such times as these. We can take heart in Jesus’ exhortation that none will be left as orphans in His love — and that it is our task to pass that message along to all who feel isolated, alone, and tormented by sin and despair. That will still be true when we have put this pandemic and its lockdowns far behind us.
The front-page image is “The Temptations of Christ,” a 12th-century mosaic in St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“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.