Sometimes, to understand the readings, it helps to think of them in their chronological order. If we do that today, the Gospel would come first. Let’s begin there, then.
Where are we in the Gospel? We are at the Last Supper, on the eve of the Passion. We are in Jerusalem in Holy Week. Jesus is alone with his disciples. He has instituted the Eucharist, washed their feet; Judas has slipped out to betray him. Jesus has been talking at length with his friends, and now he raises his eyes to heaven and prays. This is the high priestly prayer of Jesus. It’s the longest prayer we have of Jesus. It fills ch. 17 of the Gospel of John. In today’s portion, he is praying for the Eleven, the men he is about to leave. He is praying for their protection: may they remain in the truth, true to the Father, protected from the Evil One, united by love. Their mission is before them. It’s vital for that very mission that they remain bound to God and to one another. There is something so fatherly, motherly, about this prayer of Jesus.
Then we scroll forward in time – about six and a half weeks. The 1st Reading comes into play here. We are still in Jerusalem. But how much has happened! The Lord has been crucified. He has risen. He has ‘ascended’ to his Father. We are in Eastertide. We are, precisely, in the time between the Ascension of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit some ten days later at the Jewish feast of Pentecost.
Here – perhaps in the very same room as that of the Last Supper – is the first Christian community, ‘about a hundred and twenty persons’. They are there in obedience to Jesus. He had told them to wait for coming of the Spirit. They are together. They are praying. Mary is there too, and relatives of Jesus. Judas is mentioned again. By now he has not only betrayed Jesus but, overcome with remorse, taken his life. So Peter stands up. The vacancy must be filled. The number of apostles must be brought back up to twelve. There is more obedience here. Clearly the disciples felt that Jesus’ choice of twelve foundation stones was something deliberate and meaningful, something required for unity. And so they pray, asking for guidance as to who should replace the traitor. The lot falls on Matthias. Why this desire for twelve? Because Israel is the people of the 12 tribes, sprung from the 12 sons of Jacob. And Jesus saw himself as reconstituting God’s people around himself: Israel refounded, Israel renewed, Israel opened to the world. For 12 is also a number that symbolises totality, completeness, the whole of creation, the world. There are 12 signs of the zodiac. And these 12 men are about to be empowered to proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation, to all nations, to the ends of the earth: to be witnesses of the Resurrection to a world shrunken and imprisoned by death.
We can read this passage in the light of the Gospel. Here we see Jesus’ prayer answered by the Father and heard by the disciples. They are remaining in the truth. They are still one. They are preparing for the mission Jesus gave them. His great high-priestly prayer continues in heaven and guards the Church: ‘I am not asking you to remove them from the world, but to protect them from the Evil One.’
We scroll forward again, a generation or more later. We come to the 2nd Reading, the 1st Letter of St John. He’s writing to a Christian community. Certainly in the 1st century, and probably to somewhere in modern Turkey. But we neither can nor need be precise. Again, much has happened. The Holy Spirit has come. The apostles have gone forth. The Gospel has been preached. People have believed, pagans as well as Jews. Christian communities, local churches, have been founded. The Church universal is growing. We are in the time of the Church, Ordinary Time, if you like. Here is John giving his apostolic witness: ‘We ourselves saw and we testify that the Father sent his son as Saviour of the world.’ And he calls his listeners to remain in this truth and in mutual love. (The word ‘live’ in our translation is actually ‘remain’).
So here we are again within the ambit of Jesus’ prayer. Here it is echoing in the heart of the early Church. And now we begin to see where we fit, we in these uneasy years at the beginning of the 21st c. We are not outside this prayer either. It began at the Last Supper, continued on the Cross, was taken up to heaven, is present in every Eucharist – the earthly reflection of a prayer now heavenly.
‘Keep those you have given me true to your name…may they be one like us…protect them from the Evil One…consecrate them in the truth.’ This is the real context of our Christian lives. This is the prayer that holds and carries us.
How could the Father not hear the prayer of his beloved Son? The sadness and the trouble is that we don’t always hear it. Christian history unfolds between this hearing and non-hearing. How many wounds has the body of Christ had to suffer! How many failures to remain in the truth (heresy)! How many lesions to unity (schism)! How many followers of Judas, a potential for any of us (apostasy)! All of these are failures to hear. But the Father always hears, and the prayer of Jesus overcomes the world. It is stronger than evil. The Church, founded on Peter and the twelve apostles does, we believe, continue to exist in the Church shepherded by the Successor of Peter and the bishops in communion with him. So said the 2nd Vatican Council (cf. Lumen Gentium 8). The apostolic faith is still proclaimed. The Eucharist is still celebrated. There is still life in the Spirit, mutual love, holiness great and small. The words of Jesus may fall through our own hands, but the hands of the Father never fail to gather them up.
The 2nd Vatican Council – it’s fifty years since its ending – can be read as a noble attempt to hear this prayer of Jesus better, to allow it a fuller expression; a great effort to be more deeply consecrated in revealed truth, to re-establish Christian unity, to continue the mission of Jesus in the world more transparently.
‘Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and said: “Holy Father, keep those you have given me true to your name, so that they may be one like us”’.
May the Father help each of us, each of our parishes, each community, hear this prayer as he hears it. May we be faithful to the truth that comes from the apostles, live in the communion of the Church and take up the saving mission the Lord allots us! May Jesus’ words not fall on the ground, but into our hearts!
May we, like Matthias, be witnesses to his Resurrection! Amen.