Saint John xvi, verse 16 – A little while and ye shall not see me: and again a little while, and ye shall see me: because I go to the Father.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
In the Church year today we are now almost exactly half way between Easter and Ascension Day, and our collects and lessons show this fact. Today’s collect and epistle still look back towards Easter with references to those who were newly baptized on Easter: ‘them that are admitted into the fellowship of Christ’s religion’. Both the collect and epistle speak of the moral renewal and wholesome living that baptized Christians are called to observe: ‘that they may eschew those things that are contrary to their profession’ as Christians, ‘and follow all such things as are agreeable to the same.’ It is ‘the will of God, that with well-doing’ – with Christian living – we ‘may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men’ (I St. Peter ii.) who are hostile to Christianity. Such is the theme of the collect and epistle. The gospel today, however, begins to shift our focus from Easter and towards the season ahead. The gospel looks forward, to Christ’s Ascension into heaven on the fortieth day after his Resurrection. In the following weeks the gospel lessons will look more and more in the same direction, and then even further as they begin to anticipate the coming of the Holy Ghost, the Comforter, on Pentecost.
The Venerable Bede reminds us that our Lord spoke the words of today’s lesson ‘on the night on which he was betrayed’. So when he says ‘a little while and ye shall not see me’, he quite literally means that there was only a little remaining ‘time of that same night and that of the following day, until the hour whey they would begin not to see him.’ (ACCS, NT, IVb, 211) Our Lord as he speaks these words is about to be arrested, then crucified, and buried – and so will disappear for ‘a little while’ from the disciples’ sight. But ‘again a little while’ and he will rise from the dead in preparation for his Ascension into heaven: ‘ye shall see me: because I go to the Father.’ So on the literal level this text is all plain and simple enough. Such is the meaning of these words in their original context.
Today’s context is in part that of the Church calendar, which I have already mentioned. On this level the terms ‘a little while’ and ‘again’ refer to different periods of time. When Christ ascends into heaven, his disciples no longer see will see him. In just over forty days after speaking these words Christ would ascend above human time and space, at which point the disciples would not see him with their earthly eyes. But ‘again a little while’, with the coming of the Holy Spirit, and they would be reunited to Christ through the power of prayer and the mysteries of the sacraments. Christ has gone to his Father, but he is with us in our midst in word and prayer and sacrament.
Today I would like us to consider briefly the first verb in my text, namely ‘see’. Our Lord speaks of the disciples seeing and not seeing him: ‘ye shall not see me’ and ‘ye shall see me’. Most languages have many words for seeing. In English we have ‘see’, ‘look’, ‘behold’, ‘stare’, ‘gaze’, ‘glance’ and others. These different words all refer to the sight of the eyes, to perceiving or gaining some knowledge through vision. But the intensity and kind of sight differs with the term.
The verb used in today’s lesson is θεωρέω, theoreo, from which we get such words as ‘theory’, ’theoretical’, ‘theorist’, and ‘theorem’. In ancient Greek literature one of the earliest meanings for this word is that of an official observer or witness to religious acts, as when a public deputy or official attended sacred games or sacrifices. A ‘theorist’ was someone whose vision was a matter of importance, sacred importance. We have a sense of this meaning in Saint Matthew’s gospel when we are told, as our Lord dies upon the cross and as the centurion proclaims ‘Truly this was the Son of God’, that ‘many women were there beholding afar off’ (xxvii.55). So too says Saint Mark (xv.40), and Saint Luke also write that ‘the people stood beholding’ (xxiii.35). These witnesses to the crucifixion are not merely looking. They do not simply happen to glance at something. They do not see something with indifference. Rather their vision of Calvary is momentous. The holy women and Saint John look upon that which is noteworthy and sacred. Such a use of the word ‘theory’ is perfectly in accord with the ancient Greek meaning. The witnesses of Calvary ‘behold’ Christ and that which he suffered, and they are our deputies at a most notable and sacred event, the sacrifice of God incarnate. These are the greatest of theorists.
By the bye, when Pontius Pilate shows our Lord to the chief priests and the mob who demand his crucifixion, he says to them in the English Bible, ‘Behold the man!’ (John xix.5) and, again, ‘Behold your king’ (xix.14). But this is a different, more commonplace Greek verb without the hovering sense of official, momentous, or sacred observation. Those who condemn and reject Christ merely ‘see’ him. They look without perceiving, they see without understanding, while those with ‘theory’ behold him with insight and love and awe.
Saint John’s gospel is very concerned to explain to its readers that it rests on the testimony of reliable witnesses. The evangelist who authored the gospel is the beloved disciple ‘which testifieth of these things, and wrote these things’ (xxi.24) ‘that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God’ (xx.31). The point of the gospel is to ‘show’ us Christ, to give us insight into the truth, so that we might be as the holy women at Calvary and the holy sepulchre, and not as the mob in Pilate’s praetorium. The gospel invites us to behold Christ, to see him with eyes of faith and love, with insight into the sacred truth.
For us now this theory is a real and living possibility – in fact it is a necessity. We may behold Christ, we may see him still. We do not see him as the disciples saw him, in a literal and historical fashion. But we may see him through the means of grace, which are all pathways to the living God. We may gain insight into the truth of Christ through the word written, which is holy Scripture, particularly as Scripture is read in the context of worship. We behold Christ also through prayer, as we address the Father through the merits of his Son and as we are enabled by the Holy Spirit who came upon us in our baptism and confirmation. We behold Christ also in the prayers of meditation and contemplation. And we behold Christ above all through the Blessed Sacrament, in which week by week and day by day the Light of God descends upon us from the realms of endless day to enlighten our understanding and to enkindle our affections and to unite us in mystery to Good Friday and Easter. The sacrifice is presented before us still, and we still behold it in the name of the Church. As confirmed Christians we are deputized to gaze upon the sacrament and to receive the benefits of the sacrifice and to join the Resurrected Lord in his eternal life..
Christ has departed from us in one sense and for a time. In a thousand other ways we behold him still. That is our theory, and by it we live.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.