Summary: This sheltering interlude is a time when we should be, and many of us have been, acquiring more understanding of our faith.
Tuesday of the 4th week of Easter 2020
When the authorities in Jerusalem, a few years after the Resurrection of Christ, determined to wipe out the new Jesus cult that was attracting so many converts, their persecution had an unintended result. The Jesus contagion spread all over the Roman world, as new followers of Christ, new Catholics, ran off to their home towns and took with them the news that the Messiah had indeed come, and His Spirit filled the disciples. Antioch, a big city on the coast of Syria, was one of the cities benefiting from this spiritual crusade. It was probably a number of merchants from Cyprus and the north coast of Africa who first brought news of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, and the conferral of the Holy Spirit, to Antioch. And they were full of enthusiasm but didn’t understand the whole message. So we can imagine along with the Gospel, they spread a bit of confusion.
Hence it is not surprising that when the apostles who led the Jerusalem church heard of this wonderful development, they sent one of their Greek-speaking members to Antioch to help the new church. They chose the man they called “son of encouragement,” Barnabas, and he discerned the need of the new followers, now called Christians, for instruction in the faith. He needed someone well-versed in both the teaching of Christ and its strong connection to the Jewish scriptures and traditions. Saul had made a bunch of enemies in Damascus and Jerusalem, and had been sent back to his hometown of Tarsus some time before, but he was perfect for the job. The Antioch community benefited from the presence of these two masters of the faith, and grew to become a source of more missionaries as the months passed.
We are now in what I guess will be called the “plague year,” and it is rightly considered a catastrophe, for those who have suffered and died from COVID-19 and for the rest of us who have suffered economic disaster, or at least discomfort, from its societal effects. But this is also a time when we should be, and many of us have been, acquiring more understanding of our faith. I have a little Catholic prayer and study group at the public school where I teach. We have continued to meet on-line and study and pray. It is my belief that even when I leave the school, they will continue to encourage each other and learn more about their faith, not because their parents require them to, but because they are hungering to do it.
Our Gospel reading today looks back from the Antioch time to a year or so before the Resurrection, and recalls a winter conversation between Jesus and some Jews. The time of year and feast is important, because it is the Jewish feast of Channukah, or Dedication of the Temple, when the Maccabees restored worship to Jerusalem after its desecration by King Antiochus. The feast is centered on light, the lighting of the oil lamps in the Temple, but also the light of faith symbolized by the oil lamps and centered on the word of God.
But Jesus is both the Word of God and the Light of the world, so this dialogue with the Jews is critical. They wanted Christ to declare Himself the Messiah so they could denounce Him to the Jewish and Roman authorities. Then they would get rid of Jesus and his followers as they had done with a number of false Messiahs. They demanded, “if you are the Messiah/Christ, say it clearly.” But Jesus refused. It’s like He was saying, “Hey, if you can’t put two and two together, looking at my teaching and signs or miracles, why should I make it easier for you to denounce me?” Jesus knew that they didn’t believe He was the coming Lord of Lords, and Son of God, so there was no upside if He made a Messianic claim. Christ wouldn’t benefit; His followers would be no better off. Even His enemies would be in worse shape. His foes refused to become His sheep, so He could not lead them out of the sin and weakness they suffered.
God respects the free will He created in us. He will not force us, biting and scratching, to believe and accept baptism and live a life of loving service. He will not drag us, kicking and complaining, into the kingdom of heaven. He loves us too much to disrespect us like that. Only when we turn our whole lives over to Jesus will we be the position of never being snatched out of the Father’s hand.