The gospel writer (Mark) portrays Jesus as the one who alone can triumph over chaotic water, who can calm the stormy sea. The disciples certainly recognised this, for they ask: Who has power over the sea? This is not an idle query. This question captures the gist of the account: Who is this man? By what authority does he act? This was doubly an issue, because Jesus did not invoke the power of God before he spoke or acted; he simply spoke or acted and left it to those around him to decide about him for themselves.
The readings today remind us that poetic imagery is an apt way of describing the mysterious presence of God in our midst. The cedar began as a seedling that takes years to grow into a magnificent tree. The same is true of the mustard tree. It too requires time to develop its trunk and branches. The development of moral integrity in a human being is just as gradual. Rooted in God, it flourishes in God’s presence and it produces fruit even into old age. Although God is present in all things, sustaining them and allowing them to follow their natural courses, God really transcends all things. Metaphorical language may be the best means for speaking about God and the things of God. It enables us to live in the tension that both reveals something about God and conceals God’s real nature. The reign of God also begins in very ordinary circumstances, and it matures gradually until it has spread itself far and wide. Although the mystery of the reign of God unfolds within human history, we need eyes of faith to recognise it. Like the cedar and the mustard seed, it grows within the concreteness of human experience. Just as the life force that thrusts the branches of the trees further and further out cannot itself be seen, so the reign of God is mysterious, even incomprehensible. Still, it is there, inviting us, urging us to move forward, transforming our world.
The readings, which reflect some aspect of the feast, feature three prominent themes: the importance of blood in the ratification of the covenant; the atoning actions of Christ; the attitude of thanksgiving. Most people today would probably be repelled by the ritual use of blood. Yet birth blood is not subject to the same revulsion, nor is blood transfusion frowned upon. Blood is recognised as a life force, and blood relationships are cherished. In a sense this ritual makes us blood sisters and brothers of God and of each other. It seals our fate and it entitles us to the family inheritance. This feast celebrates the incomparable love of Christ. He offered himself for the expiation of our sins; he spread a banquet table for us at which we are able to eat the bread of companionship and share the blood of the new covenant. How shall we make a return to the Lord for all the good that we have received? The only appropriate response to God’s graciousness is thanksgiving (eucharistía). We have been chosen; we have been delivered; we have a witness in heaven; and now we have been given the bread of eternal life and the blood of salvation. What return can we give? A life of gratitude lived in the presence of God; a life of union with all those who eat the same bread and drink from the same cup; a life of faithful expectation, waiting for the coming of the reign of God in all its fullness.
The feast of the Most Holy Trinity brings us face to face with the foundation of our faith. The readings for this feast provide answers to the question: Who is God? They can really only suggest something about the mystery of God, and they can do this only indirectly. They call to mind some of the wonders that God has accomplished for us and in us. It is through reflection on these gracious divine acts that we can get glimpses of God. Jesus teaches that God sent him into the world to save it, has made us adopted children through the Holy Spirit, and will ultimately clothe us in divine glory. It is from his teaching that we hear that the Son was sent by the Father, the Spirit, which was also his Spirit, proceeded from the Father and from him.
Pentecost brings the Easter season to a close, celebrating the fullness of the Spirit and the great gathering of nations. The plan of salvation has been brought to its conclusion. The Risen Lord is exalted in his rightful place next to God and has sent his own Spirit to fill the earth with God’s power. The world is charged with divine energy; it needs but a spark to ignite it with life and excitement. If this has all really happened, why does our world look the same? Why is there so much religious and ethnic rivalry? Why do we continue to make distinctions between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, woman and man, distinctions that favour one at the expense of the other? Why is there so little peace, or comfort, or solace? Why do we refuse to forgive or to be reconciled? Is Pentecost merely a feast that we celebrate in red vestments? Has the face of the earth really been renewed? The answer is yes! Resoundingly, yes! The Spirit has been poured forth and works wonders wherever human hearts are open to its prompting. The earth is renewed each time rivalries are resolved, distinctions are recognised as merely expressions of diversity, peace is restored, comfort and solace are offered, and forgiveness is granted.
The Feast of the Ascension is really a kind of liminal moment in the Easter season. It is a time between times; a moment when we have left one place in our journey, but have not yet arrived at a second. While the narratives that describe the Ascension fit well into the unfolding story of redemption, the feast itself celebrates one aspect of the resurrection itself, namely, the exaltation of Jesus. The readings help us through this paradox. They allow us to focus on this theological point while we commemorate a turning point in the life of the church. We do this by considering both the enthronement of Christ in the heavens and the new body of Christ on earth.
The heart of today’s gospel lies in Jesus’ command: ‘Love one another’. The model for this love is the love that Jesus showed towards all those who follow him. Jesus has changed the way in which God relates to human beings. We are no longer servants of God but are drawn into deep intimacy and friendship through the Son. This new relationship is not dependent on our choice or will. God has chosen us and we are now commissioned to bear fruit, fruit that will last. The Christian command to love is not a vague feeling of good will; it is a love which suffers all and may demand great sacrifice. The command to love as Jesus loved may be the most difficult test of our Christianity. This is how the presence of Jesus is experienced even in his absence.
Jesus continues to speak to the disciples through imagery that they understood from their everyday experience and with symbols that come from their Jewish tradition. The vine is a staple part of Israel’s agricultural life. It carries the idea of the life that flows into the branches from the thick stalk of the vine. Jesus becomes that giver of life and prosperity, but behind his life-giving presence is the Father. Like the vinedresser, the Father must cut away anything that impedes that life or comes from a source that is not nourished from the ‘true vine’. Jesus exists to make the Father known, and so it must be with disciples of Jesus. We must ‘remain with’ Jesus and thus make the Father known.
King David had been a shepherd as a boy, so the image of the Shepherd Messiah underlies this text. But the intimacy of Jesus’ relationship with his flock goes beyond even this. This gospel is a statement of the seriousness of Jesus’ commitment to the Father’s will and his self-giving love for humankind. Jesus’ life is freely given for his flock. It is sometimes thought that Jesus died to satisfy the will of the Father imposed on the Son. This is not so. Jesus’ gift was a free gift because he responded at all times to that which was most profound in him: the Father’s love, which he wished to make known to the world. It is generous, self-giving love for others. In what ways are Christians today called to offer this same self-giving love for others? Who are those in our world who are most in need of this generous love?
Apart from passing reference to an appearance to Simon Peter (24:34), Luke records only two appearances of the risen Jesus, the first to the disciples at Emmaus, the second to the whole group back in Jerusalem. In a sense they are so closely linked as to form but one appearance that serves to link Jesus’ resurrection with the final episode of the gospel, his ascension. After the opening verse connecting today’s story with that of Emmaus, the gospel falls into two parts. The first establishes the reality of the resurrection by emphasising the physical in terms that are reminiscent of John’s gospel As he does for Thomas (John 20:24-29), Jesus shows the disciples his hands and feet; and as he cooks fish for the disciples by the sea of Galilee (John 21:9-14), so he eats fish before them in Jerusalem. In the second part Jesus repeats what he did for the disciples on the way to Emmaus. He recalls and reinterprets the scriptures for them, not only so that they can come to grips with what has already happened – his death and resurrection – but be prepared for the future. They are to preach ‘repentance for the forgiveness of sins. To all the nations’. In one short declaration – ‘You are witnesses to this’. Luke paves the way for his companion volume, the Acts, to tell the story of the mission to the nations.