Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 18)

Heaven is our goal in life. The Scriptures describe heaven by using different images. One image is the heavenly banquet. Recall the parable of the master’s return from the wedding. The parable is a call to vigilance for the master’s return. When the master arrives and finds his servants prepared to welcome him, he welcomes them to a feast and he waits on them at table.

Another image is the heavenly mansion. Jesus uses this image in today’s Gospel reading from the Gospel according to John.

Jesus speaks of his departure and consoles his disciples saying: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?”

As Jesus speaks of his departure, he tells the disciples that he will come back and take them to himself saying: “Where I am going you know the way.” He then enters into a dialogue with Thomas.

Thomas is unsure and perhaps confused. He says, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus responds, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Jesus invites us to join him on the journey to life. As Jesus makes his way to the cross and through his death to resurrection, he offers himself as the “lamb of God.” In the “Preface V of Easter” the priest prays: “By the oblation of his body, he brought the sacrifices of old to fulfillment in the reality of the cross and, by commending himself to you for our salvation, showed himself the priest, the altar, and the lamb of sacrifice.” As we continue to celebrate Easter we recall our baptism and our entry into this mystery.

Today we focus on our life in this mystery, the paschal mystery. Living in this mystery is a continual participation in the dying and rising of the Lord. When Jesus says “I am the way, the truth and the life” he is inviting us to continually walk on the way to the cross, to die with him and to rise to newness of life.

Recall the night that Jesus is arrested. While the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) remember the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper; the Gospel according to John recounts Jesus’ washing of the feet of the apostles. The washing of the feet (ritualized in Holy Thursday’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper) is a foreshadowing and an image of the cross. Jesus takes on the activity of humbling himself in service to others.

The service he performs in washing the feet is one that even a slave was not required to do, for it was too lowly and demeaning. Jesus empties himself completely in service of others; he holds nothing back but gives himself totally. The washing foreshadows the cross where Jesus “lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

Now recall Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ washing of the feet. When Jesus turns to wash Peter’s feet he says, “You will never wash my feet” (John 13:8). Jesus’ response is direct: “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.”

When Jesus is done washing the feet he instructs the disciples: “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you understand this, blessed are you if you do it” (John 13:12b-17).

Jesus is telling the apostles, and he is telling us, that we too must lay down our lives in service of each other. No one is to be excluded from our love. Our love is expressed in self-emptying love — in other words, in a self-offering. Jesus is the way to life. Union with Jesus means laying down our lives in service of each other.

Jesus acts in the role of the priest when he offers himself, for the priest is the one who offers sacrifice. The First Letter of Peter urges us “to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

You may recall during the baptismal liturgy, when the newly baptized is anointed with the Holy Chrism, the priest or deacon says: “God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has freed you from sin, given you a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and welcomed you into his holy people. He now anoints you with the chrism of salvation. As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet and King, so may you live always as members of his body, sharing everlasting life.”
The priesthood that all the baptized share is the call to be united with Christ in his one perfect sacrifice; and to have that sacrifice reflected in our lives of service. The passage from First Peter for today’s Mass concludes with a reminder of the importance of this aspect in our life of faith: “You are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises’ of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Through a life of sacrificial love in service of all we become heralds of the Gospel.

As a people who bear witness to Christ, we follow in the footsteps of the apostles and early disciples. The first reading for today’s liturgy, as for all the liturgies of the Easter season, comes from Acts of the Apostles. The readings recall the spread of the Gospel throughout the then known world. The apostles and disciples bore convincing witness to the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord.

The evidence for this was the large number of people who were baptized and the rapid spread of the faith. The growth was so great that the apostles recognized that they needed assistance.

Today’s passage recalls the appointing of the first deacons to help in the work of the church. The work of the deacon is that of service (in fact “deacon” means “one who serves.”) Service is integral to the life of faith. The deacons, then as today, offer the church a great ministry of service. They also remind us of our responsibility to serve others. At the end of this passage St. Luke reminds us of the fruitfulness of the ministry: “The word of God continued to spread, and the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly; even a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith.”

Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. He is the way that leads us to the Father because he is the truth and the life. In union with him through baptism we die with him so as to share in the eternal life he won for us.

As we go through life we are afforded the opportunity to enter more and more into this mystery by laying down our lives in service of others. Self-giving love is seen in the love that spouses share, placing the needs of the spouse before our own needs and desires. It is seen in the love that parents have for their children and the love children have for their parents.

It is seen in the commitments and service of the ordained and religious. It is seen when we care for the poor and needy in our midst. It is seen when we spend time with those who are alone. It is seen when we visit the sick. It is seen when we offer the hungry some food or the thirsty some drink. It is seen when we include the outcast. It is seen when we protect the helpless. And it is seen when we “turn the other cheek.”

As we continue our celebration of Easter, let us walk confidently in the way that leads to eternal life.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.