Saturday, May 11, 2013

Holy Week: The Last Discourse of Christ

Dear Parish Faithful,


Casting one further glance back over Holy Week, I would like to refer back to the Matins of Holy Friday (served “in anticipation” on Thursday evening), popularly known as the Service of the Twelve Passion Gospels.  This is another lengthy and extremely popular service in the Holy Week cycle.  At the heart of this Matins is, of course, the reading of twelve Gospel passages taken from all four of the canonical Gospels.  These readings actualize the Mystical/Last Supper setting, the arrest, trial, sentencing; and then the crucifixion, death and burial of Christ.  It is difficult to find a more intense and emotionally-draining service.  It is following the Fifth Gospel reading that records the actual death of Christ on the Cross that we chant the famous fifteenth antiphon with its powerful expression of the Church’s “paradoxical Christology” that again introduces us to the great mystery of the Son of God dying on our behalf within the human nature that He assumed in the Incarnation.  This hymn is chanted as the Cross is being brought into the center of the nave in a solemn procession.

Yet, it is the first Gospel reading that I want to focus on a bit here.  The First Gospel covers the entire “Last Discourse” of Christ found in St. John’s Gospel (13:31-18:1).  That covers over four chapters of the Gospel and thus is the most challenging reading of the liturgical year for the presiding celebrant of the service. (It also poses a challenge to the parish acolytes who must stand straight and steady with large candle in hand for the twenty minutes or so of the reading).  This Last Discourse is unique to St. John’s Gospel and it contains some of the most profound teaching of Christ encountered anywhere in the Four Gospels.

I came across a remarkable paragraph in a Commentary on St. John’s Gospel by one of the most prominent New Testament scholars in North America up to the time of his death in 1998.  And that is Raymond Brown.  His two-volume Commentary on the Gospel is 1,208 pages long, with over two hundred pages dedicated to the Last Discourse!

Out of that exhaustive and illuminating discussion there is one short paragraph of Raymond Brown’s that has caught my attention, and it is this that I would like to share with you as we look back at Holy Week:

It has been widely said that the Last Discourse is best understood when it is the subject of prayerful mediation and that scientific analysis does not really do justice to this work of genius.  Just as a great painting loses its beauty when the individual parts are studied under a microscope, so the necessary discussion of the composition and division of the Last Discourse may tend to mar the over-all realization that one is dealing with a masterpiece.  We shall have to point out its monotony of style, repetitions, confusing time perspective, and almost irreconcilable variety of expectations about the post-resurrectional presence of Jesus with his disciples.  Yet none of this should prevent the reader from recognizing that the Last Discourse is one of the greatest compositions in religious literature.  The one who speaks here speaks as no man has spoken.  (p. 582)

It is that last sentence in particular that caught my attention:  “The one who spoke here speaks as no man has ever spoken.”  Who, indeed, could speak as the Son of God spoke to us!?  In the words of the Word we hear a direct revelation from the Father that the Father has shared with the Son and sent the Son into the world to deliver to us as divine revelation.  Following the Resurrection and Pentecost, it is the Paraclete – the Holy Spirit/Comforter/Counselor – Who illuminates our minds and hearts with the capacity to understand those words so as to guide us into the Truth of the Gospel.  What an awesome privilege to stand in the church and listen to those words!

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