7th Sunday of Easter – Year C
By Fr. Nathan Mamo, S.T.L.
In dioceses in the USA where the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord is observed on a Thursday, then these lessons will be proclaimed on the Seventh Sunday of the Easter Season. Some decades ago, the Solemn Feast of the Ascension was officially transferred to the Seventh Sunday of Easter in many dioceses in the USA (and in some other countries) so that the greatest possible number of Catholics could indeed observe it with the level of festivity and dignity it deserves.
The very truncated account of St. Stephen, sometimes called the First Martyr, is proclaimed today without much explanation of the situation in which the Acts of the Apostles places it (Read all of Chapter 7 to get a fuller sense). Stephen was a Gentile name, not a Jewish name. That he was executed in Jerusalem by Jews whom Acts associated with a “man named Saul” provides a sense that Stephen and these particular Jews were at the opposite ends of the Christian-Jewish religious spectrum. In fact, this was sort of the proverbial tip of the iceberg in the narrative of how the first generation of Christians moved culturally from Jewish to Gentile culture over merely decades. What the lectionary editors were likely trying to emphasize by abbreviating this chapter is the profoundly courageous testimony (“martyr” means to “give witness”), faith and generosity of spirit which Stephen personified. He paralleled Jesus’ composure on the cross when, as each was about to die, each both forgave his executioners and commended himself to God [see Luke 23:34 & 46b].
Stephen, as a Christian of Gentile background, might have had little cultural appreciation for Judaism’s ritual practices as a life-long Jew might have had. When the Gospel message promoted serious reform, change and evolution of Judaism, he embraced such a development enthusiastically. He may even have been somewhat extreme in his enthusiasm resulting in actually impeding those more culturally Jewish around him from hearing the Gospel effectively. Historically religious enthusiasm and zeal have often alienated many otherwise reasonable and interested hearers! But, the early Church held Stephen in high regard, especially as it contrasted him with the destructively zealous faith, disposition and actions of that “young man named Saul.” So, in a certain way, Stephen’s martyrdom, perhaps better labeled Stephen’s witness-giving, was a literary introduction to him who would be called Paul in subsequently in Acts. It would be this Paul who was eventually labeled the Apostle to the Gentiles, even though both Philip and Simon Peter also approached the Gentiles in rather significant experiences in Acts 8 & 10 respectively. Saul’s conversion will be described more dramatically in Acts 9.
This final passage from the Revelation of John is composed in fact of the final verses of the book, less the very last one (again, why this is so in the lectionary is at least a small mystery!). Remembering that this whole book was composed in the context of near overwhelming stress of persecution and that it’s fundamental purpose was to be heard as a series of exhortations to remain faithful in spite of such persecutions, these lines reiterate the book’s purpose. The voice says, “I am coming soon ... I am the Alpha and the Omega ... I am the root and offspring of David ...” These are credentials of authority asserting that this work is very much worth hearing and heeding. John himself, as the author of the narrative, exclaimed as his final prayer in today’s text, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” His prayer was for a swift and glorious end to the persecutions by means of God’s righteous End of the World. Of course, the fuller text had yet one more prayer, a blessing prayer. “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.” (Verse 21). This is a better, and more intelligent, last word for us in our situation. We no longer pray for the end of the world. We pray for a full and holy life. We pray that our lived faith and our embrace of the Gospel might bring out our best by way of helping others encounter the wise and loving Jesus Christ.
The seven verses of today’s Gospel text are excerpted from the famous Chapter 17 of John’s Gospel account, from what is often labeled the Priestly Prayer of Jesus. The vocabulary weaves a complex and profound statement of unity or oneness as among the principle Gospel virtues. The Church would enshrine this dominical command for unity in the 4th Century’s Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed among the four “marks of the church”: one, holy, catholic and apostolic. Note, however, that while this prayer was at first for those immediately around Jesus, today’s text prays also “for those who will believe in me through their word...” That’s a reference to Christians who come later, after that first generation, including us! Remember, this Gospel account is reckoned to have been written in the 90s AD, perhaps 60 to 70 years after the Last Supper (which is the setting in which this prayer was uttered). At this Gospel’s writing, fully three generations of Christians have embraced the Gospel and still Jesus has not returned as originally, urgently and wrongly expected. Instead of giving up hope, the Church expanded the hope to include all those (even us!) who would come to believe in Christ and live his Gospel in the future. Such is the note of hope on which we approach the end of the Easter Season. One week remains. This is the period in which the custom developed of intense prayer for the coming of and the reception of God’s Holy Spirit. In fact, the reason why the Solemn Feast of the Ascension was originally assigned to a Thursday was that there are nine days between that Thursday and the Solemn Feast of Pentecost. The name Novena (for nine days) was a medieval name for the period between Jesus’ departure from this world and the tremendous inauguration of the Church at Pentecost. Of course, the Thursday observance was reasonable in a Western European Catholic culture when each holy day was also a holiday. In the pluralistic culture of today, the transfer of the Ascension to the Seventh Sunday of Easter is more intelligent, and certainly a kind assist by the institutional Church to all the faithful.
The Jesus of this Priestly Prayer is a Jesus who desires a sincere unity among his disciples founded on a love modeled after the love he and God have for each other. This ought to make us very critical of the divisiveness which erupts in the Church over personal preferences and customs, competing pieties and devotions, and anything less than genuine wisdom, justice, love and peace.
Christ is Risen! He is truly Risen! Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in us the fire of your divine love!