6TH SUNDAY OF EASTER, 2023: I WILL NOT LEAVE YOU ORPHANS
Christ’s statement in the gospel stands out for several reasons, “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.” This is an affirmative statement of divine presence and trust. It is important to understand that Christ is giving a farewell speech to his disciples in this context. Having been with the disciples for a while before his death, and having come back to life, Jesus is about to go back to the Father. He is the first advocate, a paternal presence to his disciples. To that effect, Jesus reminds the disciples to stay connected with the Father. One first approach is to remain in God’s love. The rule of the game is to keep the commandments, the standard for experiencing God’s love. Just as keeping family rules sustains family relationships, so also keeping God’s commandments attracts the love of the Father. In a little while, they would not see Jesus physically, yet his presence remains through abiding by God’s commandments. Jesus’ ascension to the Father then ushers in the Holy Spirit, the second advocate, the Spirit of truth. This lauches the missionary mandate of taking the gospel message to others. Jesus literally sends us out. We become advocates to those in need, inspired by the Holy Spirit.
The picture of the advocate is strong in the entire readings of this weekend. Acts of the Apostles presents us with the spread of the gospel in the Gentile areas. Philip, who is one of the elected seven, goes in to baptize the Gentile converts in Samaria. Whereas the people receive baptism from Philip, they need the Holy Spirit. The apostles send Peter and John to convey the apostolic authority necessary to complete the baptism. Those who receive the Spirit receive the fullness of grace. They receive the advocate who teaches all things in Christ Jesus and who inspires them to understand God’s truth. This is the reason for the great joy experienced in that city, as promised by Jesus, “so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”
When Jesus says, “I will not leave you orphans,” what is he saying to believers of our time? First, a few Old Testament passages speak about God’s value for orphans. Ex. 22:22-23 -“You must not exploit a widow or an orphan. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to Me in distress, I will surely hear their cry.” Deut. 10:18 - “He defends the cause of the orphans and the widow.” Deut. 24:17 –“Do not deny justice to the foreigner or the orphans, and do not take a widow's cloak as security.” Prov. 23:10-11 –“Do not move an ancient boundary stone or encroach on the fields of the orphans, for their Redeemer is strong; He will take up their case against you.” Jer. 7:6-7 –“If you do not oppress the foreigner, the orphans or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place…, then I will let you live in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever.”
Clearly, God has great sympathy for orphans as evident in the Old Testament. Jesus goes back to reinforce that image, to depict the feelings of vulnerability which his anticipated absence would elicit. Hence, he speaks of a future and promises the disciples, “I will come to you.” The first advocate is Jesus, who comes that his believers may share in God’s life. He communicates the love of the Father. The second advocate is the Holy Spirit who will convey the reassurance of divine safety and freedom. The work of the Spirit is to continue the work of Christ and to sustain believers in being missionaries and advocates of God's commandments of love and truth.
When we reflect on orphans, the image of parenting should strike us. Sometimes, it is hard to communicate what it means to be orphans to those who never experienced the loss of their parents. From a personal experience, working with orphaned children, the feelings of abandonment is a huge thing that never leaves. The vacuum stamps a perpetual trauma in the person. Orphaned children constantly feel exposed to risks and harm. They feel neglected. Orphans are unsure of acceptance from those around them. Some of them never knew love and could hardly understand the reality of warmth in the arms of someone who truly cherishes them. Most times, the tendency is to isolate. The great image of having someone to call dad or mom can be a great gift to orphans because in such a person they find an advocate, someone to possibly fulfil their parental needs. The root word here comes from “advocare ‘call (to one's aid)’, from ad- ‘to’ + vocare ‘to call.” It means someone who comes to your aid.
To the disciples, Jesus is the first advocate because he always comes to their aid. Jesus fulfills the role of a parent during their time with him. Jesus feeds the disciples with bread and fish. Jesus pays the temple tax for himself and for them. Jesus steps in to take care of stubborn demons when the disciples are unable to cast them out. Jesus intervenes when they have misunderstanding as to who will be the greatest and settles their sibling rivalry. Jesus heals their relatives who are sick. Jesus teaches them the word of God and how to pray. Jesus defends them against the Pharisees when they query their attitude toward fasting. Jesus washes their feet. Above all, he dies on their behalf and comes back to gather them after his resurrection. What else can a parent do for his children that the disciples don’t receive from Christ? Now, he is leaving, so they wonder what is going to happen. They have reasons to feel abandoned. Hence, he reassures them, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to be with you always... I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.”
As we celebrate Mother’s Day in the United States today, let us remember children who feel abandoned and have no one to advocate for them. Jesus sends us out into the world as advocates. The mothers are the first advocates for their children. They protect them in the womb. Mothers go for checkup and follow-up antenatal on behalf of their babies. As they bring them into this world, children expect to receive ongoing comfort and warmth, a memory of acceptance as begun in the womb. In some cases, this does not happen due to abandonment, maybe due to maternal death. In some other extreme cases, there is no father figure to complement such unfortunate maternal loss. Children like these are left vulnerable. They need an advocate, someone to come to their aid.
In the church, the Holy Spirit is our advocate, the sturdy presence that inspires believers through hierarchical and ecclesiastical leadership. The Church is mother to believers. She feeds them and provides spiritual nourishment through the teachings of the scriptures and through the sacraments. Jesus promises not to leave us orphans because he raises shepherds, year after year, to care for his flock. But he calls our attention to the importance of being advocates for those in need. The plight of orphans in the world is real and we are called to become God's presence to them. Who can be their advocates? Who can be their defender? Who can protect them? Jesus says, “And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him” (Jn. 14:21). Jesus wants us to love Him in the orphans.
Readings: 1st- Acts 8:5-8, 14-17; 2nd- 1 Pet. 3:15-18; Gospel- Jn. 14: 15-21