III Post Pascha
The mystery of our Blessed Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection is so central to our faith, such an immovable foundation upon which everything else is based, that He spoke of it not only openly once, twice, and a third time at least, but He also alluded to it in riddles and images, so that by uncovering the truth beneath the veil the hearts of His disciples might be the more confirmed in their conviction that what He had said in plain words was true indeed.
For after establishing Simon the fisherman as Peter the rock on which His Church would be built, did not His next breath foretell His suffering and death at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, to be followed by His rising from the dead? And then, after indicating that some demons can only be driven out by prayer and fasting, He said just as clearly, “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men, and they will kill Him, and He will be raised on the third day.” As if that were not enough, as they neared Jerusalem, He told His disciples most plainly, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, and hand Him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and He will be raised on the third day.”
But while speaking of what it means to be the Good Shepherd, He also said, “This is why the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down on My own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from My Father.” The astute disciple would have asked himself what it means to lay down His life and take it up again, and would instantly have remembered the other, less ambiguous predictions of His passion. That very process of having to deduce that for himself strengthens certainty even as it fills the heart with sadness and dread.
So also today, Jesus says something so enigmatic that John actually records their confusion and Christ’s response to it. “‘A little while and you will no longer see Me,’” Christ begins, “‘and again a little while later and you will see Me.’ So some of His disciples said to one another, ‘What does this mean that He is saying to us, “A little while and you will not see Me, and again a little while and you will see Me,” and “Because I am going to the Father”?’ So they said, ‘What is this “little while” (of which He speaks)? We do not know what He means.’”
Christ’s explanation is not nearly as clear as His threefold prediction, but He really does not leave them any room to doubt. “Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve, but your grief will become joy.” St. John Chrysostom without hesitation interprets this weeping and mourning as we would expect. He will shortly be put to death, and they will weep. The world will rejoice with mistaken exultation, thinking that they have put an end to Christ’s mission. But the disciples’ grief will turn to joy on Easter Sunday. What is implied, perhaps, is that the world’s joy will correspondingly turn to grief. They will bribe false witnesses, they will lie about His resurrection, they will persecute His disciples and put them to death—all in the vain hope that the message of salvation can be silenced.
But St. Augustine expands our understanding when he comes to the last line of our Gospel. Christ promises His disciples, “So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.” Only then is our joy permanent, only then is it eternal, only then can it not be taken from us, when we see the Father face to face. Then Christ will see us in the flesh, and we will see Him in the flesh, for He says, “This is eternal life, that they should know You, the only true God, and the one Whom You sent, Jesus Christ.”
Now, says St. Augustine, the Church is in travail, now she is in anguish, and we can hardly deny that. Now she is in groaning and labor like a woman with child, and the child is Christ. That child will only be delivered when every last member has been born to eternal life. Then will she bring forth in joy, in prayer, and in praise.
It is not, in my humble opinion, a matter of choosing between these two great Doctors and Fathers of the Church in their interpretation of this text. It is true, the disciples were saddened at Christ’s death and rejoiced in His resurrection. They have entered heaven, they have gone to their rest, they possess joy without end. But it is also true, the Church throughout the centuries lives over and over, both in her individual members and as a body of the faithful here on earth, the sorrow of her Lord’s death and the glory of His rising.
He therefore speaks to us as He did to His disciples on the night He was betrayed, “A little while and you will no longer see Me, and again a little while later and you will see Me.” He brings sadness to mind, not to dishearten us but to test our courage and make it more resolute. We can see with clear vision the history of twenty centuries’ worth of death and resurrection. And with St. Paul, “We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over Him.” When we therefore feel ourselves separated from the consoling presence of our God and Lord, when we are vexed with trials and contradiction, when we feel persecuted by our own sinfulness as did Peter on that night of his denial, we must be strong and persevere, with full hope in the joy He promises us will be ours, if only we stay with Him to the end.
Given 4/30/23 to the RDS and at SJB