A family I knew at a previous parish assignment celebrated recently First Holy Communion for their son. The son is only ten years old, but talks constantly about being old enough to own and drive a car. According to his parents, the boy keeps a descending count of the days, months and years until he is old enough to get a driver’s license.
It occurred to me that the perfect First Communion gift would be a St. Christopher statue for the hopeful driver’s car, even though it will be several years before a car is a real possibility. I went to the closest religious articles shop, and was surprised to find that there was nothing with St. Christopher’s image on it. There were plenty of devotional objects for drivers, but they were all angel-themed, with no St. Christopher in sight.
I noticed that many of the other religious objects for sale were also angel-themed. There were angels for housekeeping, guardian angels, angels for students and for the elderly. Evidently, angels are trendy. Angels have a lasting place in Catholicism, but religious trends don’t necessarily have lasting value.
Religious trends, like fashion trends, come and go. Remember fashion from the 70’s and 80’s? It’s a good thing that trends don’t last very long. Today’s Gospel reading offers a reason why we ought to be reluctant to get too caught up in religious trends.
This Sunday’s selection from John’s Gospel contains a well-known, but poorly understood, statement by Jesus. Immediately after he had washed the feet of his disciples at a communal meal, Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” (John 13:34) Many people, even many non-believers, have heard this statement, but few really understand what it means.
John’s Gospel is divided into two major sections. This teaching about love is both the introduction to the second part of the Gospel, and a recurring theme throughout the remainder of the Gospel. While the hour of his betrayal and crucifixion approached, Jesus repeatedly enjoined mutual love on his disciples as the consequence of God’s love for them and the appropriate expression of their love for God. (John 14:21)
The word “love” has many meanings. The most common meanings of “love” in our culture have to do with attraction, romance and sentimentality. It is important to note that Jesus’ teaching on love defines love as the social unity of believers. Jesus taught his disciples that unity with one another was proof of their communion with him and the Father. (John 13:35)
The unity of believers, our communal life shared in our parish, is the characteristic that defines us as Catholics. Some aspects of the Church’s life come and go, but the social communion of believers is the constitutive characteristic of the Church.
There are many things about Catholicism that are not essential. There are myriad private devotions, novenas and special interests, some of which become very trendy and widespread. When I went looking for a First Holy Communion gift I was surprised by the over-representation of angels in the gift shop; eventually, this trend will give way to another.
The adoption of popular prayers, or urgent issues, doesn’t make us Catholics, despite the compelling case made by those who follow a particular trend; it is our communion with the Lord and our unity with one another that makes us Catholic. As a consequence, each believer and every Christian community needs to be very careful about how we understand and express our identity as disciples.
We can be certain of our fidelity to Jesus and our love for God when it is obvious to those around us that we love our fellow believers. (John 13:35) The Letter to the Galatians says that there can be no law against such love. (Galatians 5:23) Neither can there be any substitute for it.
A note on the Scriptures
John’s Gospel is very unlike Matthew’s, Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels. Among the unique aspects of the Gospel according to John is the absence of an Institution Narrative, that is, the story of the Last Supper. The absence of a Last Supper account has been a curiosity and a difficulty for readers of the Gospel, beginning very early in the Gospel’s history.
The current form of John’s Gospel is the result of a later redactor, or editor, who made quite a lot of additions to the original written document. If you’ve ever had the impression that John’s Gospel is very repetitive in certain places, that repetitiveness is the result of the redactor’s attempt to explain certain aspects of John’s teaching.
Another contribution of the redactor is a large part of the sixth chapter of the Gospel, the section called the “Bread of Life Discourse.” The redactor felt the need to add a large segment of Eucharistic teaching to the Gospel; he made the addition to a section that was intended originally to be teaching about Baptism.
The first eleven chapters of the Gospel according to John have been called by scholars “The Book of Signs.” The designation derives from the seven miracles that Jesus performs in chapters two through eleven. The seven “signs” are the changing of water to wine at the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12), the healing of the son of a royal official (John 4:46-54), the cure of the sick man at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-18), the feeding of the crowd in the desert (John 6:1-15), walking on water (John 6:16-24), the cure of the man born blind (John 9:1-41) and the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44).
Each of these seven signs is a reference to Baptism. The transformation of water into wine at Cana refers to the radical newness of the Covenant in Jesus’ death; in the new Covenant we see God doing something entirely “new.” (John 2:10) The healing of the royal official’s son is an example of someone who believed, not because he saw signs, but because he trusted Jesus’ words. (John 4:50) The sick man at the pool of Bethesda is an image of the long “illness” of unbelief that afflicts human nature, but can be healed by Jesus. (John 5:17) The feeding of the crowd in the desert is a direct reference to the manna the Israelites ate in the desert as a result of Moses’ petition to God; Jesus is the new Moses who intercedes on behalf of God’s People. (John 6:14) Jesus walking on the water is a reference to the chaos before God’s act of creation (John 6:18), and the power of God exercised over the elements of nature. (John 6:20) The cure of the man born blind is an example of the Gospel’s recurring theme of God’s light shining in the darkness of sin. (John 9:5) The raising of Lazarus from the dead is a metaphor for the new life, and the promise of resurrection, given in Baptism. (John 11:25)
Taken together these seven signs constitute a Baptismal catechesis; they are instructions about the purpose and effects of Baptism. It might seem odd that the Johannine redactor would add a layer of Eucharistic teaching to teaching about Baptism, but it was an attempt to make up for the fact that there appeared to be a paucity of Eucharistic teaching by the original author.
There is, however, another possibility regarding teaching about the Eucharist in John’s Gospel. Some scholars have proposed recently that the second part of John’s Gospel, chapters twelve through twenty-one, provide an account of the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper that was done by the community to whom the Gospel was written.
The selection of John’s Gospel in today’s Liturgy of the Word follows immediately after the account of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. The footwashing story in John is usually considered to be the Gospel’s substitute for an Institution Narrative, but it’s worth our while to take a wider view of the second part of the Gospel.
In today’s selection Jesus said, “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) He expressed the same sentiment during the footwashing (John 13:15), and throughout the remainder of the Gospel.
In the Farewell Discourse Jesus speaks about the Divine love that is experienced by his disciples. (John 14:21) Jesus used the image of the vine and the branches to illustrate the unity into which his disciples are called by God’s love. (John 15:9) When he promised to send the Advocate to help the disciples, he reiterated his teaching on mutual love. (John 16:27) The theme is repeated in his consecratory prayer to the Father (John 17:23), and when he was hanging on the Cross (John 19:26-27).
Taken together, these repetitions of the theme of the mutual love between the Father and the Son, and between the Son and his disciples, is catechesis about Christian community life. Rather than being absent, or substituted for by the footwashing story, the Last Supper is presented in great detail as a theological account of the community’s worship. Perhaps this fact has remained unrecognized for so long because Eucharist today is most often treated as an object to be obtained rather than a cause and sign of unity.
The author of the Gospel provided a multi-faceted description of exactly how and why the disciples of Jesus are recognizable as the ones who “love one another.” (John 13:35) Far from being absent from the Gospel, teaching about the Eucharist is presented as the intended consequence of Baptism: the communal life of those united to God and one another by mutual, self-sacrificing love. Within this context, Jesus’ command of love (John 13:34), is not an ethical command addressed to individuals but a formula for authentic Christian community life.