Today’s Gospel presents us with the first reference in the Easter Cycle to Our Lord’s Ascension. For three weeks now, we have enjoyed the sweetness of our resurrected Lord’s presence, as symbolized by the Paschal Candle in the sanctuary. In a little less than that duration, we will see Him leave. In other words, we are more than halfway between Easter and the Ascension of Our Lord. The Gospel prepares us for this, while the Epistle reminds us that our time on earth — our “little while” — is fleeting, and we are to act as “strangers and pilgrims” during our earthly sojourn.
The Great Promise. “A little while and you shall see Me no longer; and again a little while and you shall see Me, because I go to the Father.” St. John drives the utterance home to us by having us read it three times, first on our Lord’s lips, then the disciples asking each other about it, then Our Lord’s telling the disciples he knows what it is they want to ask him. This is St. John’s masterful way of both honoring the holy Trinity, and drumming the mysterious phrase into our minds.
What does it mean? What does the utterance mean, though? It all depends on the two “little whiles” of which Our Lord speaks. Contributing to the confusion is the occasion on which Our Lord said it. Here, we are reading it after Our Lord’s Resurrection and before his Ascension, but Jesus spoke it during his very long and doctrinally rich discourse to the disciples after the Last Supper. He says so much there that the Church cannot digest during the events of Holy Week. The Mass of Holy Thursday focuses on the institution of the Holy Eucharist and the other important mysteries of the Triduum. So the Church “cuts up” the discourse into more digestible portions for us, presenting them elsewhere in the sacred cycle, especially in this time leading up to Pentecost.
There are two possible meanings to this utterance of Jesus.
First Interpretation. St. John Chrysostom and others held that the first “little while” was the time between Our Lord’s said the words — near midnight on Holy Thursday — and his arrest; the second “little while” was between the arrest and Our Lord’s Resurrection. According to these Fathers, Our Lord meant this: “After a little while — a few hours from now — when you shall see Me arrested, crucified, die, and be buried, you will mourn over My bitter lot; whereas the worldly Jews, My enemies, will rejoice that they have punished Me with death. But after a little while your sorrow and mourning will be changed into joy, when on the third day you see Me rise and live again” A good argument can be made that this is what Our Lord literally meant.
“A Man.” One attractive feature of this is the way St. John Chrysostom explains the small parable of the pregnant woman: “Amen, amen, I say to you, that you shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice; and you shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy. A woman about to give birth has sorrow, because her hour has come. But when she has brought forth the child, she no longer remembers the anguish for her joy that a man is born into the world.” He says that the word “man,” as opposed to “boy” is deliberate because Our Lord was speaking of His Resurrection. He is the man who is born into the world at the Resurrection.
Second Interpretation. St. Augustine has a different take. He gives it a more mystical meaning: The first “little while” lasts from Our Lord’s discourse until His Ascension; the second “little while” is all of this present life and indeed the entire duration of the world. In St. Augustine’s view, Our Lord meant this: “You, my Apostles, after My ascension into heaven, while preaching My Gospel, will grieve and mourn, afflicted by persecutions, toils and hardships; but those of the world will rejoice, because they lord it over you, afflict, torment and kill you. But at the end of this world I shall come and deliver you, so that you may rejoice with Me in eternal blessedness.”
This interpretation has a couple of good arguments in its favor, one being the weighty authority of St. Augustine himself. Another argument is that Our Lord associated the second “little while” with His going to the Father: “…and again a little while and you shall see Me, because I go to the Father.”
Which? So which is right? While the Church hasn’t pronounced a definitive judgment on the passage, it seems to me that she favors the second because of where she puts it in the cycle, using it as a preparation for the mystery of the Ascension. In this case, it would also fit in with St. Peter’s practical exhortations in the Epistle as a kind of guide to living during that “little while” of our earthly sojourn: “I exhort you as strangers and pilgrims to abstain from carnal desires which war against the soul.”
The Prince of the Apostles goes on to give very down-to-earth directions on how to live during this “little while” of our sojourn.
Practical Lessons. Among those lessons is a guide to evangelizing those who don’t have the faith: “Behave yourselves honorably among the pagans; that, whereas they slander you as evildoers, they may, through observing you, by reason of your good works glorify God in the day of visitation.” To that end, he gives specific directives to respect the civil authorities and he concludes, “such is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.” God knows we have ignorant men who occasionally say a thing or two against us. We should seek “Christian revenge” on them by doing them good, thus putting their foolishness to silence, and hopefully converting them.
Justice, kindness to neighbors, saying please and thank you, not defrauding laborers, paying what one owes on loans, and not abusing people’s property, paying for it if you break it; in short: rendering to everyone what is his due. These are all elemental points of human decency, but sometimes we overlook them. Worse, we are even capable of excusing ourselves based on the higher obligations of religion. But Love of God does not dispense us from the virtue of justice. So, St. Peter enjoins us: “Live as freemen, yet not using your freedom as a cloak for malice but as servants of God.”
Endless Joy. This “freedom” that St. Peter speaks of is the “Christian liberty” spoken of by St. Paul — a concept Martin Luther viciously corrupted into moral license and freedom from doing good works. St. Peter is describing the true freedom of the Holy Ghost. He’s giving us the key to finding the true joy Our Lord describes in the Gospel, and thus exhorting us to use our free wills wisely. It’s not free will versus grace, as the so-called “Reformers” would have us believe. Our freedom comes from Grace. Sinners are not free. Those held captive by their lusts are the most servile men on earth. A slave of God — a servant of God — is truly Free. As St. John Damascene said, speaking of Our Lady (through whom we serve Our Lord): “To serve her is to reign.”
So, practically, we can unite our two interpretations of the Gospel and say they both have application for us. We can have our joy now, our happiness, now, even in this life, but they will inevitably be mixed with sorrow and sadness. Think of the beatitudes. There is strictly speaking only one real beatitude, Heaven – the Beatific Vision. But in this life, the beatitudes give us a little taste of heaven on earth. Here we can have joy, but there we can have joy which no man can take from us. This is the second beatitude the way St. Luke gives it: “Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.”
The Secret prayer of today’s Mass gives us a hint how to taste this joy, and how to pray for it: “Grant, O Lord, that by these mysteries it may be given to us to subdue our worldly desires, and learn to love the things of heaven.”
No mortal man ever tasted the bitter chalice of sorrow or the joy of heavenly beatitude in all their extremes more than Our Lady. To her it could truly be said: “And you therefore have sorrow now; but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no one shall take from you.”
May we all share her joy.