“I am the Alpha and the Omega”, late 4th century mural, Commodilla Catacomb, Rome, Italy.
I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Revelation 22:13.
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First, some basics. The picture above from the final years of the fourth century, is one of the very first depictions of Christ with a beard. Up to that time he had almost universally been drawn or carved as a young Roman man, clean shaven and usually dressed in Roman clothing. Remember that Roman men of that time were clean shaven and had little or no idea of what a young Jewish man would look like. In fact, Romans usually associated beards with barbarians – the very word comes from the Latin for beard, barba! Only after many years did Jesus’ image change, and he was ever afterwards shown with a beard (still the fashion for many Jewish men today).
Secondly, Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, upper and lower case: A or α, Ω or ω. As Jesus almost certainly spoke Aramaic, not Greek, he would have said “I am the Aleph and the Tav”, א and ת, the first and last letters of his alphabet! Strangely, I cannot ever recall seeing Jesus pictured as the A and the Z, or, for that matter, the א and the ת, but only as depicted above! So, as the Book of Revelation also records, Jesus also said, as stated in today’s second reading, “I am the first and the last” to make his message absolutely clear. He existed before creation was created, as indicated at the beginning of John’s gospel “In the beginning was the Word”, and will live beyond the end of creation. So together, John’s gospel and his Book of Revelation encompass all time and space.
Christ Appears to his Apostles, The Maestà by Duccio c.1311, Cathedral of the Assumption, Siena, Italy.
Last Thursday (or today, depending on which Catholic archdiocese you live in), we in New York celebrated the feast of the Ascension, the moment the bodily Jesus left us to return to the Father in heaven. It is reported both at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles and at the end of the gospel of Luke, and presumably at the end of Matthew’s gospel with Jesus’ final words to us all to spread the gospel throughout the world. That ended the Age of God the Son with us on earth and, at Pentecost, the Age of the Holy Spirit was inaugurated, the age in which we all live right now; (the Age of God the Father was the era from Abraham to the arrival of John the Baptist, heralding the presence of Jesus among us). Which is not to say that these Three Persons acted separately – just look at today’s gospel. Jesus, praying to his Father in heaven, asks that his followers “may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me”. So unity is a key theme and reality for which Jesus longs, that we all be at one with each other and with God. And clearly the power which enables all this is love, again as Jesus says today: “that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them”. It was, is now and ever will be the saving grace among us, to love one another as God, who is love, loves all of us. It is the unstoppable power which carries us even through death, witnessed in today’s first reading, the first martyrdom in the church. Stephen, one of the first deacons in the church (see Acts 6:1-6) so enraged his listeners that they literally took the law into their own hands (only the Roman authorities had the power to impose the death penalty) and stoned him to death for blasphemy. Stephen “saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God'”, and in his last breath forgave his killers, echoing the Lord himself from the cross. In other words, he breathed love in his last moments.
A very strong lesson for us in today’s readings. Nothing new of course, but love is never old and cannot ever be. It must infuse our every thought, word and deed, from the beginning to the end, reflecting the truth and reality of today’s eschatological readings. If we ever fail, we have to believe that we can be forgiven by a God of Love. How could it ever be otherwise? So we can rejoice and be glad that such a God made us, stands by us in all situations, and will welcome us into divine life when we are finally called into eternity, we having tried to reflect the Trinity of Love to the utmost of our ability at all times.
Stoning of St. Stephen, Elsheimer c.1605, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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