In the 2010 movie Of Gods and Men, a community of Trappist monks in Algeria are caught between the army and the rebels because they offer medical assistance to both sides without discrimination. As their situation becomes more precarious, they are torn between leaving for a safer location or staying in solidarity with the local people who are suffering from the raging civil war.
In a serious meeting after their provincial superior arrives, they one by one make the decision to stay and not desert the people. That night, aware of the mounting tension around them, and with the premonition that this could be their last night together, they gather for a meal that evokes the scene of the Last Supper. The soft lighting, quiet music, fine wine and intimate conversation in the filming of that scene makes it especially poignant.
What stands out the most, however, is the love that flows between each member of the community. That love is palpable, visible, emanating from the screen to the viewer. One almost wishes one could have been there. As it turns out, that night they are rounded up and taken away in trucks, only to be marched into oblivion in a snowstorm, by either the army or the rebels (which one is not clear). As sobering as that last scene is, one is left with the more powerful image of that last loving meal.
Today’s Gospel evokes much the same emotions as the meal in that film, and leaves us with the message that the Father wants to be in an intimate loving relationship with all who believe in his Son Jesus.
This passage is part of the farewell discourse of Jesus as he shares a last meal with his disciples. One can picture the soft lighting, perhaps even some quiet music, certainly the attentive disciples hanging on every word Jesus speaks, quietly, intimately, perhaps in a halting voice. There is so much that Jesus wants to communicate with his disciples as his ministry among them ends. The love between Jesus and his disciples is most certainly palpable.
He shares that those who love him keep his Word, and that because he is one with the Father his Word is also the Word of the Father. The Father and he will dwell in the hearts of those who believe in him, love him and keep his Word. He allows them to see into the heart of God who is Trinity, family, relationship, intimacy — Father, Son and the Spirit that is the bond of love between the Father and the Son.
Jesus promises his disciples the gift of peace and serenity. This peace is so much more than fleeting emotions — it is a gift of the Spirit that no one else can give them, and that no one can take away from them. With that promise he encourages them to let go of any fear. Perfect love casts out all fear. Jesus and the Father have loved them perfectly. In the end, he promises he will return to be reunited with them, leaving them also with the profound gift of hope.
Father Bob was visiting a friend when his 15-year-old daughter came back from a soccer tournament. She burst into the house, dropped her equipment bag on the floor, flopped on her dad’s lap, put her arm around his neck, and nestled her head against his for at least a minute, soaking up his love. Her father carried on with the conversation as if this was totally normal and expected. The other kids did not even notice, and his wife kept on preparing supper. This was normal in this household!
Father Bob caught his breath and observed with awe this intimate father-daughter relationship. As he drove away, he thought to himself that this might be as close to a picture of heaven as he will see on this earth, and felt grateful for what he had witnessed — a living out of today’s gospel.
What Jesus shared with his disciples that night, and lived out for them the next day on the cross, he wants to share with us in the liturgy and at all times. We are asked to love him, to keep his Word, to be open to the gift of the Spirit, and to surrender our will and lives over to him who has loved us totally, and to the end. We are to be his friends and followers. He wants to be bonded with us through an intimate, close relationship of tender love and trusting prayer.
In the end, we are being called to realize, to the extent that we can, the new heavenly Jerusalem of the second reading, in our lives here and now. This is called “realized eschatology,” the making present now what we will be experiencing when Jesus comes again.
The following possibly true short story captures the spirit of this ideal. Three men running to catch a subway train knock over the fruit stand of street vendor. Two of the men brush themselves off and keep on going. The other stops to help put up the stand. It turns out the vendor is a blind boy, who asks the man who stopped, “Are you Jesus?”
The eucharist is our heavenly food, an encounter with God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, an agape or love meal, that empowers us to go out and spread the Good News that God truly does dwell in our land, and wants to be in an intimate loving relationship with all who believe in his Son Jesus.
Sylvain Lavoie, OMI, Archbishop Emeritus of the Archdiocese of Keewatin-The Pas, is chaplain at the Star of the North Retreat House in St. Albert, Alta. He continues to live out his motto, Regnum Dei Intra Vos (the kingdom of God is among you), which is his overriding focus and passion.