An Easter reflection by Fr. Basil Kirby, S.F.M. (1917-2002)
The unforgettable talk that Jesus had with the apostles after the Last Supper is extremely important in our lives today. Within hours, he was to face his final test and obedience to God would require that he submit, willingly, humbly, and lovingly, to an unparalleled injustice — crucifixion at the hands of God’s creatures.
With this challenge hanging over his head, Jesus spoke as never before to his apostles. When called by Jesus, they had shown great generosity and sincerity; they had given up a lot to follow him. They did indeed love him and were growing in that love. But these same apostles had also shown the weakness of human nature — in spite of what they had heard and seen, they had been very slow to understand Jesus’ message. They had quarreled among themselves about who was the greatest. Jesus had even told them they were people “of little faith.” Now, devastating new failures lay just ahead.
During the course of his talk, Jesus foretold that Judas would betray him, that Peter would deny ever knowing him, that all would run away leaving him alone in the hands of his enemies. Yet Jesus’ love for his apostles showed no sign of lessening; on the contrary, each moment during his talk seemed to bring a new outpouring of his love for them.
Here we touch on mystery:
- the life-giving love that Jesus had offered them and would never withdraw;
- the compassionate love with which Jesus spoke to them, even knowing that they were about to be dreadfully unfaithful;
- the forgiving love with which Jesus would still call them back, after their failure, to a new and even more wonderful union with himself.
The story begins with Jesus washing the feet of his apostles, an act which at the time was usually done by a servant. In explanation he made an urgent appeal that his followers should all be humble servants looking after one another, and he gave his assurance that those who would live by this ideal would be happy people. Then came the tragic defection of Judas. Blinded by his personal greed, Judas had failed to appreciate any part of Jesus’ message of love. He now compounded his earlier infidelities by leaving the group to betray his Lord. The lasting sadness of the story of Judas comes not only from what he did, but also from the fact that he alone, of the 12 apostles, did not return to Our Lord to receive the forgiveness offered to all by a loving Saviour.
After Judas left, Jesus spoke intimately and at length with those who remained. The apostles had grown in love and appreciation for him as the One sent by God, but they were still very dependent on him in his human condition — the carpenter from Nazareth — who was their friend, the one who had called them and who had shared his life with them. Jesus now had to prepare them for something totally different. The time had come for Jesus to leave this world and return to God. Soon he would no longer be with them. He had shared their human life, now he was calling them to share his divine life, with the Father and the Spirit. This new reality would demand of them a deeper act of faith as well as a determined commitment to love him and to love one another.
Without any merit on our part, we have been touched by God…
Jesus spoke to them repeatedly of that beautiful union of everlasting love that united him with God, and of how the apostles were now to be included in that union. He returned several times to this new way of being. It would be part of the deep invisible mystery of divine love that he and his Father would always be “in them” and that the apostles would be “in him” and “in the Father.”
For the apostles this was not a question of something they had to learn, much less of something they had to do. Rather, it was a question of elevating human life to a divine level by responding to Jesus in faith and love. When Jesus spoke to them, this was beyond their understanding. However, after his death and resurrection all this began to come together in their hearts, and after his ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit it became their continuous way of union with Jesus.
Jesus spoke also of other important things that night. He explained their mission to be his witnesses, of how they would face hostility, hatred, and even death on his account. He made it clear that if they remained in a loving union with him, they would receive his gifts of inner peace and joy, and that he could and would do great things through them. He called them to love one another as he had loved them.
At the end of the talk, Jesus opened his heart in an extraordinary and touching prayer. He prayed for the glory of God, Father and Son; he prayed for his apostles and for his future followers, including us: “May they all be one. Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me.”
Jesus’ prayer for us underlines two important things: first, that almost everything spoken to the apostles was spoken also to us and for us; and, second, that to live in loving union with Jesus is also the vital vocation of every Christian. If we are faithful in this, it will have a marvelous effect on the world, lifting up the world and bringing about the reign of God, in which all creation lives in justice, peace, mercy and love.
A Christian on Jesus’ terms
Do we understand what all this means? What it means to be a Christian on Jesus’ terms? We are called to live by faith. Our success will depend mostly on how we live up to what is expected of us. With so much at stake we do well to ponder, deeply and lovingly, the things that Jesus has done for us and has said to us.
Jesus’ talk starts at the beginning of Chapter 13 and continues to the end of Chapter 17 in the Gospel of John. If we read it slowly and prayerfully, allowing Jesus to speak directly to us, we will be greatly enriched. Even greater benefits can come if we read it many times over the years, pondering it and allowing Jesus’ words to sink ever deeper into our souls.
Without any merit on our part, we have been touched by God and freely given the gift of faith. Our lives are to be a message to the peoples of the world. God offers divine love to every person in the world and calls all humanity into the fullness of life. We bear a heavy responsibility, and only with God’s help can we be faithful. Since we share the universal weakness of fallen humanity, we may continue to sin and bring dishonour on our Christian faith. But Jesus will never fail to call us back.
“I give you a new commandment: love one another; just as I have loved you, you also must love one another By this love you have for one another, everyone will know that you are my disciples” John 13.34-5.
Fr. Basil Kirby was ordained in 1941 and served in Canada as well as in the Dominican Republic and Guyana missions. In Canada, he did a lot of work in the formation of priest and lay candidates. He also served as Secretary General and then as Treasurer General for Scarboro Missions until his retirement in 1985. Fr. Bas made his own funeral arrangements, requesting the most simple of funerals and that the homily be focused not on himself but on “the Divine generosity by which we are called to be God’s adopted children.”