As a Dominican, I am supposed to contemplate God’s Word in order to share the fruits of my contemplation with others. To be honest, the lectionary really has been throwing me for a loop this week, so I thought it only fitting as a Dominican that I wrestle with something here on the blog, and invite you to ponder with me.
In Ordinary Time, the first reading comes from the Old Testament, and thematically matches with the Gospel reading: we look at the old through the lens of the new, and vice versa. But during the Easter Season, the first reading doesn’t come from the Old Testament. Rather, it comes from the Acts of the Apostles, Luke’s second volume that covers the history of the Church after Jesus’ Resurrection.
On Monday, we heard in the first reading about a man named Stephen who (SPOILER ALERT) becomes the first Christian martyr just one lectionary-day later. Our Psalm has us repeat: “Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!” (cf. Ps 119) so you might think the Gospel will be about righteous people following God’s laws. Nope.
The Gospel passage is actually one of my favorites: it begins what is known as the “Bread of Life” discourse in the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to John, and as the chapter unfolds we find Jesus preaching a rich theology of the Eucharist. Yet on Monday we don’t get to the Bread of Life quite yet: the reading begins with a very human situation that I can imagine happening even today. Jesus has just fed the multitudes by miraculously multiplying the loaves and fish, and narrowly escapes their ill-placed attempt to seize Him and make Him King of the Jews right then and there (if you missed that story, I highly recommend reading John 6 from start to finish– it’s a great narrative). Jesus now finds that He can’t go anywhere without this same crowd following behind, waiting for some more bread, so He turns to rebuke them:
“Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me
not because you saw signs,
but because you ate the loaves and were filled.”- John 6:26
In other words: Jesus fed them. And now they are following Him because they think He will keep feeding them. He is the One who can put food in their stomachs. He can take care of their physical needs. Why wouldn’t they follow Him? But Jesus says they are missing the point. Rather than follow Him for the food that perishes, they should recognize that He is the One WHO IS the Bread of Life. For the rest of the week, we hear about this Bread, and the discourse concludes with Jesus’ challenging and almost grotesque insistence that:
“My Flesh is true food, and my Blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood remains in me and I in him.”
— John 6:53-54
I don’t think I can say enough about how much I love the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. But what I’ve been pondering is: how does this fit with our readings from Acts?
In both cases, we have a single narrative that is woven throughout many days. This should be a clue that the stories themselves are intertwined. Thematically, it seems they both begin with one set of expectations and end with another: in the case of Jesus’ would-be followers in the Gospel, they are expecting that He will continue to give them bread to fill their hungry stomachs. What He gives instead is a teaching about His body being sent from heaven as food for eternal life. For Stephen in Acts, the narrative seems ill-fated even from the beginning, since his good deeds are met with hostility right from the start. His death isn’t really a surprise. Yet we do encounter a plot twist, for by Tuesday we get a hint that the story of Stephen is actually not about him at all. The reading concludes: “Now Saul was consenting to his execution.” — Acts 8:1a
We started the week expecting that our hero would be the righteous believer Stephen, but we end the week by focusing on a totally different person: Saul, the murderous persecutor of the Christians who will later become the great Saint Paul. By Friday, we’ve read about how he was present and even goading the crowds at Stephen’s death, and how he continued to seek out Christians and destroy them. Our lectionary concludes the week with the account of Saul’s journey on the road to Damascus, where he encounters the Risen Christ who accuses him of persecuting not only His people, but Jesus Christ Himself. Saul is blinded and must go seek Ananias for help. It is perhaps the most famous conversion story in the world, so it is beginning to seem like Luke has used the events of Stephen’s glorious martyrdom simply as a backdrop for telling his grand account of the glorious conversion of Saul.
But we still must ponder how these narratives in Acts and in John’s Gospel are connected, and I believe it is in Philip that we have the key. On Wednesday and Thursday, Luke takes us on a brief detour from the evil machinations of Saul in order to focus on the person of Philip– one of the Twelve who was scattered as a result of Saul’s persecutions. On Thursday we hear that Philip opened the scriptures to an Ethiopian eunuch, explaining that Jesus was the suffering servant of whom Isaiah spoke (cf. Luke 24, and the Road to Emmaus, when Jesus did the exact same thing for the two travelers). The eunuch was baptized right then and there. Which now begs the question: who is this story really about? Is it about Stephen, or Saul, or Philip? I believe that the answer is simultaneously: all of them, and none of them.
In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke isn’t telling the story of individual people so much as he is telling the story of the Church– which is the Body of Christ on earth. In one sweeping narrative, he focuses on three different people whose lives are intertwined, yet they find themselves in three very different situations. Through these three people, Luke demonstrates two major points:
- Christ’s mission on earth has been truly efficacious, AND
- The early Church is supported through the active presence of the Holy Spirit.
Let’s look at them one by one:
In the account of Stephen’s martyrdom, we see that Jesus Christ is not only “standing at the right hand of God”, but also confirm that Jesus has opened heaven’s gates. We are told that Stephen was “filled with the Holy Spirit” as he saw these things.
In the account of Philip baptizing the eunuch, we confirm that Jesus’ followers are not only spreading the Gospel as He commanded, they are fulfilling His call to baptize all nations (cf. Mt 28). We are told that Philip was moved to encounter the eunuch through the direct command of the Spirit.
Finally, in the account of Saul’s conversion we see that Christ and His Church are so intimately united that in persecuting the Christians, Saul is persecuting the LORD Himself. We are told that Saul’s eyesight is restored precisely when Ananias prays that he be “filled with the Holy Spirit.”
It would be improper to try and map Luke and John onto one another in a neat 1:1 manner, but I do not think Luke would disagree that the things Stephen, Philip and Saul show us are precisely what the Bread of Life offers us: eternal life in heaven, God’s active presence in the Sacraments, and the intimate unity of Jesus with those who believe in Him. Likewise, I do not think John would complain that Luke shows us how it is through the Spirit that all these works of Christ are made manifest.
This, I believe, is why these narratives are combined. As we go through the Easter season we must be thinking about how Jesus’ life, death and resurrection have changed EVERYTHING– this is why we rejoice! But we must also be looking forward to the conclusion of the season, which is marked by the celebration of Pentecost, the Feast of the Descent of the Holy Spirit. It is the power of the Spirit which has animated the Church from the beginning, and it is the power of the Spirit that strengthens all Christian peoples to live out the rich blessings given in the Sacraments today.
So now I’m pondering what this means for me. In one sense, it’s a good reminder that “my” story is not really “my” story. It is God’s and God’s alone– so my life must be lived in such a way that He can be known through my actions, no matter what I may encounter. On another level, it makes me think about how the Eucharist is at work in my life. How can I open my heart and mind to the glorious realities of Heaven, Christ’s Body and Blood living within me, and this intimate union I have with Jesus? Furthermore, how can I be open to the working of the Holy Spirit, so that I can show the world these invisible Truths? I will continue to ponder these things, and would love to hear your thoughts.
Sts. Stephen, Philip and Paul, pray for us!