Posted April 11, 2021
2nd Sunday of Easter, Yr B
Jesus came and stood among them, and said: ‘Peace be with you!’ They were filled with joy. Again he said to them, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ (Jn 20: 19-22)
This episode in St John’s Gospel marks the fulfilment of the promises of peace and joy made by Jesus earlier in the Gospel. And not just peace and joy but ‘my peace’ and ‘my joy’. ‘Peace I leave you, my peace I give you.’ – ‘I have told you all this so that my joy may be in you.’ By breathing his Spirit into his disciples on Easter Sunday evening, Jesus gives them a share in his own peace and his own joy.
But now I ask myself: Is it really possible to share someone else’s feelings? We often speak as if it were. We say things like ‘I share your sadness’. Or we invite others to ‘share our joy’, as when couples send out wedding invitations: ‘Darren and Fiona wish to share their joy with you.’ It’s a lovely sentiment, but does it make sense? I mean: You can no more share my joy than I can share your toothache. Admittedly, if I really loved you, I might try to share your toothache by biting hard on my favourite sugared almonds until I got toothache too, then we could sit together and be miserable together, which might be wonderfully romantic, but I would still not be sharing your toothache, for your toothache would be yours and my toothache would be mine, and so shall it ever be. And just as we cannot share each other’s toothache, so we cannot share each other’s joy. Your joy is yours and my joy is mine. To be logical, Darren and Fiona should have written on their wedding invitation, not ‘We wish to share our joy with you’, but rather: ‘We wish you to be joyful as we also shall be joyful, so that we may all be joyful together.’ And for the removal of all doubt, they ought to have added in a footnote: ‘Always remembering that our joy is ours and your joy is yours’; or, more precisely: ‘Darren’s joy is Darren’s and Fiona’s joy is Fiona’s.’ (You might try something like that if you’re about to send out wedding invitations and you want to keep the numbers down without appearing to be mean.)
The reason your joy is yours and my joy is mine is that the source of your feelings is completely separate from the source of my feelings: as separate from each other as the source of the Thames is separate from the source of the Tiber. The source of my emotions, the root of my subjectivity, is unique to me, and non-transferable.
What would it be like for you really to share someone else’s emotions, in the strict philosophical sense that would have rendered Darren and Fiona’s explanatory footnote untrue? That would be mind-boggling. It would mean a fusion of subjectivity, a merging of personality. And suppose, in addition, that that other person’s emotions were infinitely sublime and beautiful, vibrant with the very life of God, rooted in God, increasing in intensity through all eternity. That must be as close as we can get to defining heaven. It’s what the poet meant when he said, speaking of Easter: ‘In a flash, I am all at once what Christ is.’
‘My peace I give you.’ ‘I have told you all this so that my joy may be in you.’ Here at last, uniquely, is a sharing of joy that is not metaphorical. Jesus does not mean that we shall experience a joy similar to his, or a peace brought about in us by his acting on us as an external agent. He means: we shall experience the self-same joy, the self-same peace, the self-same emotions and vital instincts as he himself. We shall share his subjectivity at source. That’s what he means when he promises: ‘… so that my joy may be in you’; ‘my peace I give you’. Or when he says: ‘In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.’ Or when he tells the woman at the well: ‘Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty: the water that I shall give him will be in him a spring of water leaping up into eternal life.’ Or when he says: ‘I am the vine, you are the branches.’ The sap that courses through the branches is the same sap that comes from the deepest source of the vine. St John’s images are a pictorial way of expressing what St Paul meant when he said: ‘For me, to live is Christ’; and ‘I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.’
I know that all this may sound a bit abstract to some people, even to many Christians – a bit too inward-looking and otherworldly, perhaps. We feel more at home with a Christianity that is focused on the problems of the world, with justice and peace, with liberals and conservatives, with cardinals and popes and all the other burning issues you will read about in the letter columns of the Catholic weeklies. Some of those issues are of course important, but St John’s Gospel is pointing us to something deeper, to the inner reality of our religion. This is what the prophets of old were dreaming of when they spoke of God putting his spirit within us, of God taking from us this heart of stone and giving us instead a heart of flesh.
In today’s Eucharist we ask the risen Lord to breathe his Spirit into us, to become the source of our thoughts and our feelings, our instincts and our emotions. When faith at last gives way to vision, that’s what will matter: not what form of liturgy we championed, what ribbons we sported, how many indignant letters we wrote to the Catholic weeklies: but whether we have made the inner reality of our religion our own; that is, whether we have truly become what Christ is.
Fr Tom Deidun