The New Jerusalem, Angers Apocalypse Tapestry, Musée des Tapisseries, Angers, France.
I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.” Revelation 21:2-4.
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Oh for that New Jerusalem! What a different world it must be compared to the stark anger, hatred, violence, pain and tears of our present world. Urban violence in large cities, murders committed in all places, hatred cried out aloud in demonstrations, attacks on old people, unprovoked invasions on peace-loving countries; what a contrast to the words of today’s second reading, quoted above. How on earth can such a reign of peace and love possibly exist in such a world? Well it can, incredibly enough – in our own hearts. Let the New Jerusalem enter through the gateways of our own conscience, heart, mind. Let God rule instead of us, instead of me. But how can that come to be? Look at today’s gospel, and the answer is as clear as sunshine: Love one another. That is easier said than done, as the Lord really knows. He told his followers to love one another, but how could he prove, as it were, that he really meant what he said? He could have just been mouthing a platitude, a simple heartfelt wish, or simply hot air uttering a pious hope. How could he show that his words really sprang from utter conviction and example? Look at his words: “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and God will glorify him at once.” Difficult words to express a supreme Christian truth, hanging on the command to love one another.
The Sacrifice of Isaac, Woodcut from the Lyon Missal c.1500.
The whole concept, the ethos, as it were, springs from the Hebrew notion of sacrifice. Do you remember the command God gave to Abraham, to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, “whom you love”, as a sweet offering to God, to prove he loved God (Genesis 22:2)? The fact that Abraham trusted in and loved God above all else was proven, and God stopped him killing his son at the very last moment. Blood sacrifice, therefore, was part and parcel of the Hebrew concept of love and devotion. It was also an unquestioned practice among the peoples of Canaan at that time. But the killing of a child to prove this among the Hebrew people was henceforward absolutely forbidden by God, setting them apart from their neighbors. The idea of substitution was therefore introduced; in the sacrifice of Isaac, a lamb caught in a thicket was substituted and offered to God in Isaac’s place. This original idea of sacrifice has lived down to the present time. St. Maximilian Kolbe gave up his life in exchange for another prisoner’s life in Auschwitz. What possible greater proof does one need in proving one’s love for another? And so it is that Jesus did exactly the same thing. In the fateful admission that he was indeed the Son of God and the Messiah to the high priest, which occasioned his condemnation to death, he showed his utter devotion to God, who had identified him at his baptism as Son of God, and anointed him as Messiah by the Holy Spirit, all for our redemption, and willingly went to a gruesome, horrible death for love of us. He proved his love for us and for God his Father in the starkest, most profound way possible.
The martyred saints down through the centuries have done the same thing over and over. As Thomas More says in “Man for All Seasons”, “I do none harm, I say none harm, I think none harm. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live” (A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt, Vintage Books, 1962, p.93). In other words, love is the answer, now, then and always, even if you have to die to prove it. Take that image and apply it to Passover Night in the Book of Exodus, where the blood of an unblemished lamb, slaughtered that night and whose blood was smeared on the doorposts of the Hebrew homes, saved the lives of their first-born sons. Then there is the Lord at his Last Supper stating that the bread and wine of that meal was his body and blood which we must take eat and drink, preserving our life to that of heaven, the shared eternal bliss of the life of God.
Challenging thoughts which can be summed up, as Jesus himself did, into one simple command, love one another, for in that lies the secret of eternal life and happiness. If we are prepared to live that way to the utmost and best of our ability, then we are the friends of God, the God who loves us so much that we can become one with the Divine who becomes one with us. That gives each one of us the strength to live a profoundly good life, loving God and neighbor and self now and forever, in the New Jerusalem.
Flower Power, October 1st, 1967, The Pentagon, Washington, DC.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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