It’s May Day—from ancient times, a celebration of high spring, and more lately (despite some wonderful holdover traditions such as dancing around the Maypole), it is observed around the world as the international celebration of workers’ rights. That all began right here in Chicago, when May 1, 1886, was set as the target day to begin an 8-hour working day – followed three days later by the infamous Haymarket Massacre of protesting workers by the police. Ordinarily for Catholics, May 1st is
dedicated to St. Joseph the Worker, a feast instituted by Pope Pius XII in 1955, largely to deflect the socialist and Communist appropriation of the date.
But on this May Day, the sixth and effectively the last Sunday of Easter, we are looking ahead to the Feast of the Ascension — Christ’s return to the Father, and with him, the beginning of the return of all things to God. And after that, the descent of the Spirit, the Feast of Pentecost. The Advocate, the promised parakletos, is Jesus’ greatest gift to his followers, for the Holy Spirit is his spirit. And then, in today’s gospel, Jesus gives us his peace. So, Jesus tells his disciples not to feel distressed or fearful. But why should we not be afraid? Things can get scary.
We fear terrorist attacks in our cities, we doubt our ability to make things come out right, to find work, to provide decent housing and education for our children, to stop the killing in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and on the streets of Chicago. We worry about North Korea. We wonder how we can ever find ways to bring food to millions of starving people, to make peace more than an ideal in an imperfect world, to halt the wanton destruction of the life-sustaining capacity of this planet. Did I mention some pretty strange weather? And the ongoing theatrics of the 2016 presidential race?
What we hear Jesus saying is, simply, do not fear: it all makes sense. Not perhaps to you or me, but that does not so much matter. What matters is that the reins of time and human history are in the hands of God. We do not have to save the world — for one thing, we couldn’t, not by ourselves. For another, it isn’t necessary — the world has already been saved. It is always being saved, perhaps little by little according to our human standards, but nevertheless saved. First of all, by God’s grace. But grace works through the efforts of God-minded people. Not by observing religious laws, which so concerned some of the first Christians as we hear in the first reading, but by faith in the grace of God, by hope in the wisdom and the power of God, and by love — every kind of love, but especially the love that does justice.
During the Easter season, the daily readings for the Liturgy of the Hours are taken from the Book of Revelation, as are many of the second readings at Sunday masses. It can be pretty harrowing reading, and you might wonder why this, the last and for many people scariest book of the Bible is chosen for this time of year.
But the Book of Revelation is in fact a testament of hope, a promise of the ultimate victory of God in Christ, which is conveyed so well in the passage we have just read. Despite sin, oppression, and suffering, God triumphs in the end, and every tear is wiped away and there is no more death or mourning. God makes all things new.
At the end, the City of God, the New Jerusalem that descends from heaven, is not only beautiful. It is big. We tend to miss that, and the dimensions are given in a different chapter, but when you work out the volume, as I make my students do when I teach a course on this fascinating work, they describe a cube 1,500 miles on each side and 1,500 miles high – about 3,375,000,000 cubic miles – two-thirds the volume of the moon. It is the largest structure ever imaged by the human mind. But the simple point the author is making is that there is enough room for everyone. Everyone who ever lived, who is living now, and will ever live. Salvation is inclusive.
Years ago, a young Jesuit I knew wrote a song that has become a great favorite – “We shall build the city of God — and our tears shall be turned into dancing, the night shall be turned into day.” It’s a good song, but only partially right — it is not we who build the city of God, not alone. It comes from God, the human home for everyone as the heart of the new heaven and the new earth. And the Psalmist was right — if God does not build the city, in vain do its builders labor. It is a grace, a gift from God, not the product of human ingenuity, much less money or technology.
But we must also remember that God builds with human hands, God loves with human hearts, God’s light shines forth from human hopes. We are responsible for the city, for we are the city, a city built of living stones, with the prophets and apostles for its foundation. Each of us is an essential part of that structure, being built up to the glory of God. But it is still God’s doing, God’s gift, God’s glory.
And so our fears are groundless. We have no reason to fear, to be afraid of the dark. To the extent that the world turned from God, Jesus overcame the world. And in the gift of the Spirit, sent from God as the earnest of Christ’s return, we have the pledge of an everlasting home. A very big one. The return of Christ to the Father that we will soon celebrate is the beginning of the end, a prelude to the coming of the Spirit of Christ that fills the whole world, the Lord and Giver of Life, making all things new. And in that Spirit we build our human city, which one day will be taken up and transformed into the true and eternal City of God.