Back to the Basics
To many a sixth grader, nothing seems more pointless and boring than learning the parts of speech. But they are tools of the trade in communication. Musicians practice scales. Kindergartners trace the alphabet. Programmers learn Dos. When Tony Muser rehearses the Royals on "the basics," he offers what professionals in any field need. You've got to know the basics if you want to perform. If sixth graders don't learn the parts of speech, they will not write, speak, or spell well in their own or a foreign language. Their assessment of the task is half right: The basics may be boring, but they're never pointless.
At the end of his life, Jesus rehearsed the basics. He and the Father are one. And his followers should be one. By now these messages seem boring. But these are the basics. They're not pointless.
On the week before Pentecost the Easter season moves toward its climax. In our diocese, we celebrate Ascension on Thursday of the sixth week of Easter. In some other places, the feast of the Ascension has been moved back a few days to replace the seventh Sunday of Easter. Either way, the season fills with anticipation.
Here the seventh Sunday of Easter stands as an oasis in the brief desert between Ascension and Pentecost, between the departure of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit. The scriptures for the seventh Sunday of Easter fit this unique period of time, this original novena, the nine days of prayer for the fulfillment of Jesus' promise to send the Paraclete.
The first readings of the Easter season follow a sequence of events in the Acts of the Apostles. But the seventh Sunday of Easter always breaks the sequence and turns back to a story from early in the book. This year, that story is the stoning of the apostolic church's first martyr, Stephen the deacon. The reason we hear this passage next week (7:55-60) is the way Stephen describes his vision. As he prepared to die, he saw "the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." The "Son of Man" first appeared in Daniel 7:13 and became a favorite self-image used by Jesus (e.g. Matthew 24:30; 26:64; Mark 13:26; 14:62; and Luke 21:27), as a sign of his coming eternal glory. Since Mark (16:19) and Luke (24:51; Acts 1:9) have described the ascension of Jesus like another vision of the Son of Man, Stephen provides further verification. So, the reason next week's first reading backtracks the sequence of events in Acts is to reveal the ascended Christ through Stephen as we await our celebration of Pentecost.
The second reading concludes the sequence of passages we've heard throughout the Easter season from the book of Revelation. It draws from the last verses of the entire Bible (22:12-14, 16-17, 20). Once again, the passage fills us with hope of the coming of the Lord Jesus.
The gospel comes from John's account of the last supper (17:20-26). At the end of the farewell discourse to his disciples, Jesus turns to his Father and offers a closing prayer to the meal and to his life. We hear from that prayer, chapter 17 of John, every year on the seventh Sunday of Easter. This year Jesus goes back to the basics: unity.
John's Jesus has talked about unity before. After comparing himself to a good shepherd, Jesus said, "The Father and I are one" (10:30, 38). He urged his disciples to love another as he loved them (13:34-35; 15:12, 17). He said his words are those of the Father (14:10-11, 23). He compared his union with his disciples as vine and branches (15:5).
For Jesus, then, these are the basics: He and the Father are one. The disciples and he are one. When they live as one, they live in the unity of Jesus and the Father. Jesus proclaims that his unity with the Father is revealed in his followers, and he exhorts them to live in it.
The unity we experience in family, parish, city, and church reflects God's unity with Christ. When we don't experience that unity around us, we haven't quite penetrated the spiritual relationship with God and others which Jesus describes. If we drill the basics, like parts of speech, the rest will follow.
[Published in the Catholic Key on May 17, 1998 for the 7th Sunday of Easter]