Sunday reflection: John 16:12–15

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 16:12–15:

Jesus said to his disciples:

“I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming. He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you. Everything that the Father has is mine; for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.”

How many of us know what the Rosetta Stone is, and what it meant? These days, it’s almost a slang term for foreign-language instruction by computer, a clever and very successful use by the company for branding its acclaimed educational platform. But the original Rosetta Stone found at the end of the 18th century that unlocked centuries-old mysteries about the language and culture of ancient Egypt.

At the time of its making, the Rosetta Stone memorialized an edict from the second century BC in three different languages: ancient Greek, a demotic script, and Egyptian hieroglyphics. Until its 1799 discovery, understanding of the hieroglyphic language had long been lost, and very little could be ascertained about ancient Egypt and the messages it left behind. The translation of the Rosetta Stone took decades, but it eventually unlocked the language and allowed the modern world to regain an understanding of the once-dominant Egyptian empire.

Today’s Gospel comes from a long passage from John, taking place shortly before the Passion, in which Jesus provides a kind of Rosetta Stone of the faith — or perhaps more accurately, describes how the Holy Spirit acts as one. Even the disciples, Jesus says, will not fully grasp nor well remember what He has taught until they have received the Holy Spirit. In an earlier part of the discourse (John 14:25-6) Jesus says, “These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”

Until this point, the disciples had Jesus with them to teach them, to guide them, and to strengthen them. But even with that, fallible human memory and will would take their toll at some point after Jesus departed — and His departure was a necessary part of His mission. In fact, in John 16:7-11 immediately preceding today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that it’s to their advantage in their mission that He departs:

Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convince the world of sin and of righteousness and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in me; of righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more; of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.

Jesus must redeem humanity through His death and resurrection. The Holy Spirit will work through the Apostles in the Great Commission to teach the world about sin, righteousness, and judgment, and in doing so safeguard forever the treasure of salvation. Those messages will not be lost, or as Jesus puts it in another setting, the gates of Hell shall not prevail against the church that Jesus founded — because the Holy Spirit will connect all to the Word of God who seek Him.

Still, Jesus understood their sorrow at His coming departure, and their inability to fully comprehend its need. “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament,” Jesus says when they question him about this, “but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.” The world will rejoice, because the Holy Spirit will have guided the Apostles and their successors to bring the joy of the Gospel to them. The knowledge will not be lost, but shared, multiplied, and strengthened. Jesus’ teachings will not have the expected outcome of an itinerant teachers in an obscure corner of the world, but with the Holy Spirit will reach into every corner of the world, translated — as the Rosetta Stone itself does, directly and indirectly — into every language and heart.

Paul writes to the Romans about the sorrows and joys that this mission provides. “We even boast of our afflictions,” Paul instructs, “knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” It is that love of God that the Apostles and their successors long to share, and which make the afflictions of that mission easier to bear.

And the love of God has endured forever, from the moment of Creation until its end. Our first reading from Wisdom explains the relationship between the Word and the world, and the love the Word expresses for humanity:

“When the Lord established the heavens I was there, when he marked out the vault over the face of the deep; when he made firm the skies above, when he fixed fast the foundations of the earth; when he set for the sea its limit, so that the waters should not transgress his command; then was I beside him as his craftsman, and I was his delight day by day, playing before him all the while, playing on the surface of his earth; and I found delight in the human race.”

The Rosetta Stone offers us an opportunity to rediscover an ancient and long-dead civilization in order to understand where we have been. The Holy Spirit provides us an opportunity to grasp the love of God and the possibilities of life everlasting with Him. By inviting the Spirit of Truth to reside in our hearts and to conform to His will, that translation will be with us always — as will He.

The front-page image is of the original Rosetta Stone by By © Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 4.0, currently located in the British Museum, as posted on Wikipedia 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.