The Stuff of Life
As a non-Catholic Christian who frequently attends Mass, I am often fascinated by the chosen pairing of the Scriptures. Why this Psalm with this passage from the Gospels? Why this Old Testament story (often seemingly random) thrown in with this particular reading from a New Testament letter to the believers? And as an English teacher who loves to find the meaning beneath the surface, my mind can’t help but search for themes. Of course, I never fail to find them because that’s the purpose of the carefully designed groupings in the first place. I often think, what a feast for the preachers! Scriptures already carefully combined which reveal the story of God’s design for His chosen people throughout the sweep of history in both the Old and New Testaments. So much of the work of seeing God’s repeated themes in our lives is already done for us if we only look at how the Scriptures fit together each week.
During the Easter season (which always lasts 50 days after Easter and ends on Pentecost), instead of the usual Old Testament passage, the first reading is taken from the book of Acts which describes the apostles’ work on earth right after Jesus ascends into heaven. And because this year Pentecost is next Sunday–when we remember the Holy Spirit descending on the apostles in the Upper Room–this week’s readings bring us to the close of Jesus’ 40 days of ministry on earth AFTER He resurrected from the grave. When I search for connections between today’s Mass readings, I see that the passages are filled with contrasts that are really the stuff of life: fear and belief, suffering and joy, waiting and arrival.
Psalm 27 juxtaposes the fear and longing King David has with his firm belief that God is his refuge, his light and his salvation. It reads more like a reminder to self that God provides the antidote to all the fear and questions by which we find ourselves surrounded: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear? The Lord is my life’s refuge; of whom should I be afraid?” David is clearly feeling fear and reminding himself that he can find refuge within God and that there is still much good ahead for him. King David has long been one of my favorite Bible characters because I so closely relate with his constant wrestling between fear and belief and his desperate cries for God to meet him exactly where he is.
Then the passages move on to the difficult contrast of suffering and rejoicing. The reading from 1st Peter 4 and the Alleluia refrain from John 14 both encourage us that when we’re suffering, we can still rejoice in the hope that God is not going to abandon us as “orphans,” but that He will return to us and our hearts will rejoice. Then in the Gospel passage from John 17, Jesus speaks directly to God right before He ascends into heaven, revealing himself as the reason we can rejoice above all else. He prays to His Father, “Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you, just as you gave him authority over all people, so that your son may give eternal life to all you gave him.” Jesus speaks these words right before He miraculously ascends into Heaven, leaving His disciples with the crystal clear purpose for His time on earth. Jesus’ purpose is to glorify God the Father by giving all of us the hope of eternal life. This switch in focus to the eternal perspective of our lives gives me great reason to rejoice, and has often spoken such truth and calm to me in great moments of suffering as well.
Though it appears as the first reading, Acts 1 records the last chronological event of today’s passages as it describes the apostles returning to Jerusalem after Jesus had been taken up to heaven. It says that all the apostles (along with many of Jesus’ followers) “went to the upper room where they were staying” and “devoted themselves with one accord to prayer.” Then the passage abruptly ends, effectively leaving us with the apostles as they pray and wait together for the “Helper” that Jesus had promised He would send, which we know is the Holy Spirit.
And the Upper Room is where we can spend this week as well. Acknowledging our fears while still declaring God’s power to overcome them. Knowing full well all the ways in which we have suffered and fully expecting there to be more suffering ahead, yet still experiencing moments of joy as God gives us divine glimpses into the good being wrought out of the pain. So much of our lives can feel like a waiting game, hoping and planning for the next good thing to finally materialize. The week before Pentecost reminds us that we can remain in the waiting a little longer, and that we have the promised hope of both eternal life in Heaven and the helping presence of the Holy Spirit here on earth.