April 6, 2003- 5th Sunday of Lent: Chapter

A LITTLE WHILE AND THE WORLD WILL NOT SEE ME, BUT YOU WILL SEE ME (John 14: 19). Jesus spoke these words to his apostles, in the account that St. John presents, on the night before he died. A little later in the course of the same evening he returned to this theme of his departure from this world and expanded upon it somewhat when he observed how distressing it proved to be to those whom he had just called his friends.

A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me for I go to the Father. This caused some of the disciples to say among themselves: ‘What is this that he is saying?’... ‘What is this "little while" he refers to? We do not know what he is talking about.

Jesus answer to their perplexity strikes us as being quite oblique. For us who are aware that he refers to his coming passion and death, his answer is sufficiently clear but before the event it would come as adding to the darkness rather than clearing it up.

Amen, amen I say to you that you will weep and mourn but the world will rejoice. You will be saddened but your sadness will be turned into joy (16: 20).

John, of course, was writing after the death of Jesus and in light of his resurrection and ascension. His audience too was aware that the Lord was speaking of his imminent departure from this world of time. The purpose of his remarks was to prepare his followers for the coming ordeal. He wished to remove something of the shock they would experience to find themselves alone, deprived of the Master who was the source of their inspiration and their moral strength. His assurance that even though he was removed from them visibly he would still be present to them precisely because where he was going was to his Father and their Father in heaven. This presence would not be sensed by the world of unbelievers, but they would have access to him in their loving faith in him.

The little while that Jesus speaks of here before his departure was indeed a short interval of time since he was to die the very next day. And the little while after which they would see him again, risen from the dead, was but a three day interval. But how about our experience of his return now that this little while before he returns has become 2,000 years? Shortly after his death the disciples of Jesus asked themselves just how long this period before his coming would last. In fact, already during Jesus’ lifetime, when he predicted the end of this world, they posed this question to him. His answer once again left the matter very vague and even more mysterious: Concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven. The Father alone posses that knowledge (Matthew 24:35). The lesson he draws from this uncertainty is that we should always be ready for that final encounter.

In spite of the caution that our Lord himself displayed in regard to defining the end time, Christians have continued to speculate on this topic. When will you come, Lord? The Bible ends with a reply to this question. Yes, I am coming quickly. Amen, Come, Lord Jesus (Apocalypse 22:20). Maran atha, preserved in the original Aramaic, this prayer of the early Christians sought to hasten the day of his appearance. Come quickly! St. Paul ends his first Epistle to the Corinthians with this prayer. If anyone does not love our Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema. Maran atha! (16:21,22) Toward the end of the first century it was already incorporated in the Eucharistic prayer as recorded in the Didache 10:6. Taken up by the Apostolic Constitutions (7.26.5) its use was extended in space and time to subsequent generations of believers. They held the conviction that the time of expectation should be shortened by the fervent desire of those who love the Lord and long for his total victory over all that resists his power and truth.

The faithful who meditated on Jesus’ teaching and who contemplated him in his glory grew in their desire for heaven. Many of the more reflective who devoted themselves to considerations of God’s nature were profoundly affected by his infinity. The limitlessness of his being and of his existence means that He simply IS. Unbounded by space and time, He is always and everywhere present to all that exists. Those who had such consciousness of God’s eternity and transcendence were keenly sensitive to the limits of our human condition. Compared to God the infinite and eternal all else is small, all time brief. The closer a person drew to union with God the stronger the sense of human finitude and smallness.

The Cappadocians were particularly impressed with God’s infinite greatness. St. Basil used a rare word, first coined by Eusebius, to refer to this attribute of the Godhead •B,4D@:,(X20H, meaning infinitely great (cf Epistle 233.2 MG 32: 868A). His close friend, Gregory Nazianzan, took up this same feature of God and commented upon it.

The Divine is infinite and difficult to contemplate. This alone can be fully grasped: His infinity. This remains true even if one might think that because He is simple He is wholly incomprehensible or perfectly comprehensible (Oratio XXXVIII. VII PG 36: 317C, D).

Elsewhere he states the basis for his apophatic theology, namely his conviction that we cannot so much as ascribe any quality properly to God, for He is without defining limits of form or time.

Since this is the state of the matter, let the person whose heart is directed to the Lord come with us and adore the one Godhead in three persons, not introducing any name of lowliness into that inapproachable glory, but always exalting in speech the one God in three persons (Oratio XXXIV.IX PG 36:249B).

St. Basil’s brother, Gregory of Nyssa, followed up this same line of thought and developed it further.

Nothing can be affirmed concerning the excellence of the power, or goodness or any of the qualities of the being of that heavenly nature. ... Infinity is the same as limitlessness. To think that there is a greater or lesser abundance of that infinite and surpassingly great being is the height of madness. (Contra Eunomium Lib. I PG 45:301C...D).

In treating of the nature of the infinite, Gregory speaks of experiencing the kind of dizziness (Æ84((`l) that comes upon one who stands at the edge of a great precipice when he dwells on the greatness of God.

The mind can, through curiosity, run through all that is knowable, but in no manner can it discover a way to run through the concept of eternity so that it might station itself outside and have an overview of all it has seen and of eternity itself. Rather it finds itself, as it were, on the edge of some high cliff, with smooth and steep rock under it... and experiences a vertigo and helplessness and so turns back to what is native to it (Homilia VII In Ecclesiasten PG 44: 729C- 732A).[Cf. further J. Daniélou, Platonisme et Théologie Mystique, 130, 131].

A century or so later, Pseudo-Denys the Areopagite would construct an elaborate mystical theology on the basis of these profound insights of the three Cappadocian Fathers which was to have a vast influence on the spiritual life of the West down to our present time. That God is greater than anything that can be predicated of Him means that he remains unknowable even as He is approached more closely.

Accompanying this sensitivity to God’s infinitude and transcendence is a sharp awareness of the brevity of time. Compared to the infinite and timeless nature of God our human presence on earth is but a brief span. This awareness doubtless is obtained in a variety of ways and is less dependent upon the transcendent experience of God’s nature. In itself, however it arises, such consciousnesss of the brevity of our life has been common to many monks and contributes to their focusing their energies the contemplation of the One whose years endure forever. When it is particularly prominent in the awareness of a young person it may well be a contributing element in the choice of a monastic vocation. Peter the Venerable spoke very eloquently of this feature of our human condition in a letter he wrote to St. Bernard. His language is evocative of the tristesse felt by one familiar with the limits of human life and happiness in this world.

Brief are the days of man. They flee away and do not return. They leave no trace behind. Man is unstable, like running water he passes away with speedy flow, running out to an end that he does not know (Epistola IV Liber VI PL 189:404).

There is nothing, however, of the esthete in his response to this incertitude as if it were to call into question the value of human effort. On the contrary, he evokes the limits imposed upon man to stir up St. Bernard to immediate action in the effort to eliminate all offenses against charity between the members of their Orders as he states in his following words.

Accordingly, we must not put things off but rather hasten. We must not tolerate a dangerous procrastination; delay is not free to us for, as Scripture cries out: Man does not know what the morrow will bring (Prov.27:1). We must obey Scripture where it says in another place: Whatever is at hand to do, carry out with energy (Ecclesiastes 9:10).

Our Lord had a strong sense of the urgency of his mission. He lived subject to the hour when he would carry out his Father’s decree. He sought to prepare his followers to be ready whenever that hour should come upon him. Repeatedly he warned his followers to be ready at all times for their own definitive encounter with their Judge. This alertness was to be a permanent feature of the dedicated Christian and there have always been men and women who maintained it, among whom were such monks as Bernard and Peter the Venerable. But even they stood in need of reminders and of stimulus, and in fact, that is precisely why Peter wrote his letter to the Abbot of Clairvaux, he states.

It is foolish to call out to the runners in the stadium "Run". But it is not foolish to tell them: "Run so as to win (1Cor 9:24)." You have up to now run a great distance with the Lord supporting your steps, but you should not stop until you dare to say with confident mind: "I have completed my course, I have kept the faith (2Tim 4:7)."

The example of the apostles themselves admonishes us to expend daily efforts to remain prepared to meet the hour of testing whenever it comes upon us. Their failure at a critical time is meant to serve as a warning for us that we are weak and tend all too readily to presume upon past endeavors. Human nature tends to seek immediate satisfaction with a persistence that to have endless resources. Unless we are alert to the call always to transcend the limits of time and matter we readily slip into complacency with what we have already accomplished. Jesus, aware of the strength of this deeply rooted tendency to establish our self in the familiar right up to the last evening of his life strove to encourage us to avoid this pitfall. Only a little while am I with you, and you will see me no longer. Time presses, we must make the best of it to prepare ourselves for taking our place at the wedding feast. Clothe yourself with the garment of charity and be ready with the oil of kindness in your lamps for the night approaches when no one can work or walk without stumbling. This lesson he preached in various ways and on many occasions, for he knew how resistant we are to its call.

While many remained heedless of this message, there have always been some who took it to heart in every generation since our Lord’s time. The early monks were men who understood that a radical solution to the problem posed by this requirement of the Christian vocation. They left their families, their profession or trade, their possessions and friends and pursued a way of life that encouraged and facilitated vigilance. Vigils during the night were a daily reminder of this word and a preparation for welcoming the Lord when he should come. They soon understood that it is not enough to live apart from the society of the busy world, one must also watch over the door of the heart to assure that disturbing thoughts are not admitted within. Readiness comes only at the price of an inner alertness that resists the beginnings of temptation. It entails also cultivating those attitudes and ways of acting which the Gospel inculcates: meekness, self-denial and considerateness of others. Living for the good of the community, and devoting oneself to helping those most in need were important for redeeming the time and consecrating oneself to the service of the Kingdom.

  Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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