My father died twenty-five years ago when I was on my first-ever sabbatical in South Africa. I still remember getting the phone call from my brother Billy in the middle of the night. My large family waited for me to get home to have the funeral, and so began a long journey back, with lay-overs in several cities: Durban, Amsterdam, Atlanta, and finally, to Chicago, where I grew up. That same brother picked me up at the airport and took me to my mother’s house. When we got there and were unloading the car, he stopped, looked at me intently, and said, “I have just one question for you: will I ever see my father again?” I am sure this is a question that almost anyone who has ever lost a cherished family member or a good friend, has asked oneself. I don’t recall exactly what I said to my brother. But I think it must have been something like, “Well, I certainly hope so; adding, “no, I do believe that we will see him again.”
I was reminded of this incident when I read today’s second lesson from the First Letter of Peter: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope,” counsels the author. I know that grief can cloud the memory, but I was sure that my brother wasn’t looking for a theological explanation, and certainly not a platitude. He wanted me to comfort him, to re-assure him. And yet, I distinctly remember that what I said was somehow a challenge to my own faith: could I really give a reason for my hope? Of course, I certainly do hope that I will see my father again, and not only him, but the others in my family who have died: my younger sister and brother, my aunts and grandparents, and my mother, who is still alive, but is in quarantine in a nursing home, as well as so many good friends and mentors who have gone to God before me. But as for giving an account for, or a reason, for my hope. Well, that is where I sometimes stumble.
In the face of a loved one’s passing, or when we are approaching our own death, and especially in this madly frustrating experience of living in a pandemic that has threatened the whole world, giving a reason for one’s hope can be a very challenging request. It was especially hard for the community that Peter was addressing. Biblical scholars tell us that this letter, written in the name of the apostle Peter toward the end of the first century, addresses three major themes: baptism, suffering and traditional exhortations. Yet, despite its many references to suffering, the background for this letter is not one of Roman persecution. Rather, it reflects the alienation from family, neighbors, and society in general that newly baptized Christians of the early church experienced as a result of their conversion to Jesus. Old allegiances to the gods of one’s family and the city’s gods were relinquished, causing a shift in loyalties that brought about tension within their families and in civic society. So, when Peter writes, telling the newly baptized “be ready to give reason for your hope to anyone who asks,” he follows up with “but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.” He exhorts them further that “it is better to suffer for doing good, if that be the will of God, than for doing evil,”
In our own time, perhaps we can think of situations where choices or decisions we have made have created tension within our families and among friends, perhaps even cutting off these relationships. I’m thinking here especially of the choices that we make to be authentic, risks we take in coming to terms with who we are, who we are called to be, prophetic commitments we have made and the values that they are based on that we cherish. Whether these are political commitments, disagreements (or even agreements) with the church’s teachings on significant social issues, promises we have made, or broken –all of these choices, including those we didn't choose: most especially, these precarious situations caused by the Coronavirus pandemic: joblessness, food insecurity, our elders and veterans dying alone in nursing homes and hospitals, exhausted parents trying to balance working at home and overseeing their children’s education, seeing the future plans we have made or the provisions for our retirement collapse and disappear. All of these are stressors and have a bearing on whether we are able to “give an accounting for our hope.” At best, we may feel resigned; at worst, we simply feel paralyzed. And yet, for me, the reading from John’s Gospel for this Sixth Sunday of Easter offers us some “good news,” –and a reason for our hope, even though we are living with painful situations.
The Gospel for today comes from the first of Jesus’s “farewell discourses” in John’s gospel. Chapter 14 starts out with “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” a familiar selection for funeral Masses. Midway through the discourse, Jesus promises that when he goes to the Father, “I will do whatever you ask in my name…if in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” Wow! How’s that for a reason for hope? But then, right after that, in the passage assigned for today, Jesus reminds us that, if we love him, we will keep his commandments. That saying immediately brings to mind the “New Commandment” that Jesus gave to his disciples at their last meal together: we are to love one another, as Jesus has loved us. And it was in the act of footwashing, Jesus gave us the example of how to do this: we are to serve one another, humbly, even to the point of relinquishing that which is most dear to us: our reputation, our status, and ultimately, as Jesus himself did, our very lives.
Today, we who find ourselves among the privileged, often hear that we have are losing “a way of life” that we have come to take for granted: going out to dinner, seeing movies in theaters, face-to-face learning in classrooms, even receiving holy communion. We are sobered by the possibility that, even if these activities eventually can be resumed, until a vaccine can be developed, our very lives may be at stake. Of course, such life-threatening situations have long been familiar to the poor, to refugees, to those living in war-torn areas, to victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence, or anyone who has ever been excluded on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation. The virus has become “the great leveler”; it does not discriminate. And yet, this daunting reminder of what it means to be a follower of Jesus need not leave us in despair. For Jesus promises that “he will not leave us orphans.” He will ask the Father, his Abba God, to give us an “advocate,” a Spirit of truth, who will be with us always.
My colleague in the Theology Department at Boston College, Fr. Michael Himes, has a video I use in class where he explains what this word “advocate” means. In Greek it is parakletos, or Paraclete, and is variously translated as “counselor,” “comforter” or as it is here, “advocate.” In a legal context, it meant someone who “sits by the side” of a plaintif in a court, to advise, defend and give guidance. In John’s Gospel, however, this Counselor/Advocate represents both the presence and activity of God and the continuing presence of Jesus in the community.
In the video Fr. Himes adds an interesting tidbit from a sermon by the 19th c. Jesuit priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins to his explanaton. Hopkins, who was known for his playfulness with words,
What is a Paraclete? A Paraclete is one who comforts, who cheers, who encourages, who persuades, who exhorts, who stirs up, who urges forward, who calls on, what the spur, and word of command is to a horse, (and here, Fr. Himes interrupts his reading from Hopkins to demonstrate, by saying: ‘in otherwords, gitty -up, gitty-up!’) He returns to Hopkins and continues, [the Paraclete] is what clapping is to a speaker, what a trumpet is to a soldier. That is what a Paraclete is to the soul: one who calls us to the good.
A Paraclete is just that, something that cheers the spirit of one, with signals and with cries, all zealous, that one should do something and full of assurance that if one will, one can, calling us on, springing to meet us halfway, crying to our ears, or to our heart: This way to do God’s will, this way to save your soul, come on, come on!
Hopkins goes on to use the analogy of a cricket game, but since I’m an American without much of understanding of cricket, I like to think of my Boston College students lining up on Commonwealth Avenue during the Boston Marathon, urging on the runners up “heartbreak hill,” : come on, come on, you can do it! Or I think of the former TV Sportscaster, Jack Brickhouse, in my hometown of Chicago, yelling, “hey, hey, Ernie!” when the Cubs’ Ernie Banks was rounding third base and headed for home.
Yes, this is the message that the 6th Sunday of Easter has for us during the Coronavirus. As we look toward Pentecost in just a few weeks, as we ponder how to give an account for our hope, that we will not be left orphans: let us remember that we have already been given the gift of the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit who is urging us on saying: “Gitty-up! Gitty-up! I am by your side, I am right with you, I will not let you fail!”
 Michael Himes et. al., The Vision of The Gospels, Disc 2 “The Gospel of John.” (Jefferson Valley, NY: St. Anthony Messenger Press. Fisher Productions, 1997).
 C. Devlin, ed., Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, (Oxford University Press, 1959), 70. Cited in Joseph J. Feeney, The Playfulness of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Routledge, 2016), 167.
Mary Ann Hinsdale, IHM
Sr. Mary Ann Hinsdale, a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Monroe, MI), is an Associate Professor of Theology at Boston College. She received her B.A. from Marygrove College (Detroit), her M.A. in religious education from the Catholic University of America, and her Ph.D in Systematic Theology from the University of St. Michael’s in Toronto. Her academic specializations are in theological anthropology, ecclesiology, and feminist and ecological theologies. Her previous ministries include high school teaching, campus ministry, and serving on the faculty of St. John’s Provincial Seminary (Plymouth, MI). For the past thirty-three years she has been teaching theology to undergraduates and graduate students, first at the College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, MA) from 1987-2000, and since then, at Boston College.
A former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, her publications include: Women Shaping Theology(Paulist Press), “It Comes from the People”: Community Development and Local Theologies, co-authored with Helen Lewis and Maxine Waller (Temple University Press) and many articles and book chapters. Her most recent publication is “Mutual Responsibility for the Gospel: Edward Schillebeeck’s Later Theology of Ministry and its Implications for Today,” (in the T & T Clark Handbook to Schillebeeckx, Boomsbury, 2020). Mary Ann enjoys singing, reading, seeing films, and cooking. As a native of Chicago, she is a proud Cubs fan.
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