The world is now in what is arguably the sixth month of the COVID-19 pandemic. The stress on people everywhere is evident, and there is much to learn from the wide range of reactions to enforced or self-imposed isolation. Both are undeniably stressful, but somehow the impatience of a generation in which the whims and enjoyments of post-World War II prosperity are now expected as some kind of entitlement have become strangely manifest. Never mind the teeming millions of people in the poverty-stricken zones of the Third World, who have little choice but to endure and hope.
But aggressive self-indulgence, especially the spectacular variety, is likely a minority phenomenon even in affluent nations. It just gets more media attention. But at least part of the trouble with the irritating deprivations of the COVID crisis lies in expectations based on false claims and, to put it charitably, critical misunderstanding. The temptation to believe what we want to be true is hard to escape. And so, in the Year of COVID-19, the hazards of truth-telling have risen to the fore in almost unprecedented ways. And with the erosion of truth, comes a crisis in confidence.
It has been claimed from the outset of at least media attention that when it comes to the new virus, “we are at war.” It has never been made clear what such a “war” could possibly resemble, as the world “battles” an invisible enemy with no policy, strategy, weapons, or leaders. It is a disease. But even granting the relevance of the metaphor, it may also be said that, in the words of Samuel Johnson, that wise old Englishman, back in 1758, “Among the calamities of War may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.” [See https://quoteinvestigator.com/2020/04/11/casualty/#note-437628-5] The short form: The first casualty of war is truth.
Today’s readings point beyond the coming Feast of the Ascension to Pentecost, the last great celebration of the Easter Cycle [Acts 8:5-8,14-17, 1 Peter 3:15-18, John 14:15-21]. The emphasis in the gospel reading is on truth, although confined to a single, pregnant phrase. There will be more about that in the weeks to come but there are other matters at hand that also introduce us to the coming of the Holy Spirit.
The first reading continues the saga of the initial spread of the Christian “Way” in the ancient Middle East, in this instance to Samaria. The traditional blood enemy of the Judeans, Samaria entered Christian consciousness with the parable of the “Good” Samaritan and the anticipatory account of the encounter of Jesus and the nameless but soon-to-be evangelist, “woman at the well.” Historically, it seems that Samaria became something of a Christian stronghold, at least until the Romans laid waste to Palestine in waves of fierce destruction. It is believed that the great first-century Christian apologist, Justin Martyr, although a convert, was from Samaria.
What is striking in this passage is that the Holy Spirit came upon the Samaritans as had happened to the Disciples themselves and the house of Cornelius. Also significant in the quest for truth is Peter’s advice to the churches in the second reading, “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence; and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” Truth-telling is often a difficult choice and led many early Christians, including Justin, to their deaths.
It is when we turn to the gospel reading that the relevance of the other readings comes to the fore. Jesus promises to send “another” Advocate “to be with you always – the Spirit of Truth.” The word in the text is “parakletos” – paraclete., which has been variously translated as Advocate, Comforter, Counselor, Helper, and Intercessor. It is actually a legal term and referred to a defender in a court proceeding, someone “called alongside” a defendant. There is a connection here with Peter’s counsel, for when we are at a loss to explain ourselves, the Paraclete intervenes, as we read in Luke’s gospel: “…when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious how or what you are to answer or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say” [Luke 12:10-12].
But it is as the Spirit of Truth that Jesus introduces the Paraclete here, and promises that the Spirit will remain with us forever. That is, if we remain true to the Spirit that has been given us. It is this Spirit that world cannot accept because it neither sees nor knows it.
Speaking truth to power is how people often refer to this dilemma today. It requires honesty and courage. But that is why we need an Advocate and have been promised and given One.