Today the celebration of Mothers’ Day in the United States comes as a welcome respite after weeks of violent weather, deadly shootings in schools, churches, synagogues, and mosques, as well as what seems to be an upsurge in airline crashes and other disasters. That we live in turbulent times is an understatement. Nor can we avoid the spectacle on this day especially of thousands of mothers (and fathers) along the UN-Mexico border whose children have been torn from their care by officials protecting what some call “the American way of life.” If God weeps, perhaps the uncommon rains we have been experiencing are tears of divine sorrow. And warning.
Our readings today remind us of the spread of early Christianity in the decades following the
Resurrection of Jesus. In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke documents the spread of the faith throughout Asia Minor, what we now know as Turkey. We are more likely to recall cities like Corinth and Rome, but the original cradle of the Gentile churches was the central and western regions of Cilicia, Galatia, Lycia, and Phrygia, north and west of Antioch, where Paul and Barnabas and other Christian missionaries preached and won enough converts to establish small congregations. It was not an easy task. They met hardship and resistance, but the faith grew town by town, as they made their way west toward Rome, Spain, and Gaul. By the way, the little island in the Aegean Sea where John the Elder received his vision of the risen Christ and may have composed the Book of Revelation, was also in Asia Minor, not far off the southwest coast of the ancient city of Ephesus.
There is a subtext in these readings that is worth noting today, when prejudice, discrimination, and division are in the ascendant. It is highlighted in the opening verses from the reading from Revelation, where John writes,
“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands…”
This is the inclusion theme, appearing in what you might suspect would be the most unlikely place to find one in Christian scripture. But the phrase appears over and over again in Revelation, like a drumbeat: “every nation, all tribes and peoples and languages,” culminating in the great vision of the New Jerusalem coming from heaven, and the fulfillment of the earlier promise:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among human beings. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ [Revelation 21:1-5]
He then gives the dimensions of the City of God, which is so vast it could hold all the people who ever lived and are living now, and will probably live in time to come. The only condition is to live justly with compassion and honesty. It can be a struggle, as we have seen just this week, but the promise stands.
And that is the same subtext we find in the short passage from the Gospel of John: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.” [John 10:27-30]
The story of early Christianity, the struggles, sacrifices, disasters and small triumphs, are fascinating in themselves, but the lesson we can take from these accounts is much more significant than geography. It is not simply that Christianity began as a Jewish sect or rapidly grew into a West Asian religious movement, much less a European one, but that it was from the beginning universal in its embrace. All are equally welcome. All.
A Latin chant once used during the Lenten office begins Media vita morte sumus… It sums up much of what has transpired this week.
“In the midst of life we are in death. Of whom may we seek help but you, O Lord; who for our offenses are justly displeased? Yet, O God most holy, O holy and mighty, O holy and merciful Savior, give us not over unto bitter death.
V. Cast us not away in the time of age; forsake us not, O Lord, when our strength fails us.”
It is equally and even more true that in the midst of death, as Jesus and John the Elder proclaim, we are alive. For it is the hand of God that sustains us. So long as we remain true, despite everything, no one can ever snatch us away. May we be sustained on our way by the love and faith of our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, all the way back to that little band of valiant women who went to the tomb that first bright morning of eternal promise.