May 22, 2022, Sixth Sunday of Easter and Seventh Sunday of Easter
(We will post the readings for Ascension on Sunday, May 29)
Madeline Contorno, OSB, Sacred Heart Monastery, Cullman, AL.
If you live in a diocese that celebrates Ascension on Sunday, you will miss one of the gospel selections for either the Sixth or the Seventh Sunday of Easter. But taken together, these two gospels from John 14:23-29 and John 17: 20-26 offer insights into the mind of Jesus on the night before he died. His last will and testament are the gift of peace and a prayer for unity. How sorely we need both today.
In the gospel of the Sixth Sunday of Easter, facing a tortuous death on Calvary, Jesus speaks of peace: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid” (John 14:27). At a time when he himself was most troubled, he encourages his friends not to be troubled or afraid, but to receive God’s shalom and entrust their lives to a divine Spirit that would transcend the dark moment. For Jesus, peace is not dependent on the circumstances, no matter how dire. Peace is dependent on his absolute trust in God’s love.
After extending his gift of peace and the promise of the Spirit, Jesus prays aloud in what is called his “high priestly prayer” (John 17:20-26) in the gospel of the Seventh Sunday of Easter. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus prays alone in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest, his disciples distant or asleep. But in John’s Gospel, the disciples, and all of us with them, have benefit of hearing Jesus intercede to God on our behalf, we “listen in” to the deepest longings of his heart. And his most ardent desire is “that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me” (v.22-23).
It is this same gift of peace that I am continually praying for this Easter season as the war in Ukraine rages on and affects the entire global community. I pray with Christ for unity as violence, division, and hostility seem to be tearing our country apart here in the United States. I pray for deep peace as one of our Sisters suffers with end-stage pancreatic cancer.
How can we possibly receive Christ’s gift of peace and pray for unity when the world is so brutalized and so full of suffering? How can we be that gift of peace to others?
Time and again since February, I have been inspired by stories of courage from the war in Ukraine. Ukrainian mothers, like the ancient Hebrews leaving Egypt in flight, have had to leave their country overnight in buses and trains, seeking safe refuge for their children. Other Ukrainian men and women, old and young, have stayed behind to fight and maybe die for the freedom of their homeland. President Zelensky’s decision to remain in the capital, Kyiv, when offered a chance to escape remains an amazing profile in courage.
I have also heard stories of thousands of Russians protesting the war in cities across their country, knowing full well the dangerous consequences of their actions. All these people bear witness to the gift of peace in the midst of turmoil, a peace that only Christ can give.
Another witness to the gift of peace, from the context of public scandal and terminal illness, was Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago. In 1996 he wrote a book entitled The Gift of Peace. The book is one of my personal classics. A hospice chaplain at the time the book was written, I was deeply moved by the Cardinal’s vulnerability as he wrote during the last months of his struggle with pancreatic cancer. In a handwritten letter to the reader in the book’s first pages, he shares, “The good and the bad are always present in our human condition, and if we ‘let go’ and place ourselves totally in the hands of the Lord, the good will prevail.”
Like Jesus, Bernadin’s last desire was for unity as he promulgated his “seamless garment” approach to life issues, and founded his “Catholic Common Ground Initiative” shortly before he died. He wanted to mitigate the deep polarities in the Church of his day that sadly persist to this day.
Cardinal Bernardin’s struggle with pancreatic cancer came to my mind this Easter as one of my community members, Sister Margaret, received a similar cancer diagnosis. Although only a novice, with the rapid progression of her disease, Margaret asked if she could be allowed to make her Perpetual Profession of Vows as soon as she was strong enough. With proper permissions from the Vatican, our Chapter voted to accept her request, and we held the Profession Ceremony during Vespers on the Second Sunday of Easter.
Sister Margaret’s profession became a gift of profound peace for the entire Community. She continues to embody the Paschal Lord in our midst in a most transparent way. She desires to give her life and her terminal illness to the Lord, and by her profession, she is giving both her living and her dying to all of us. Like Jesus, peace is her gift to us and her vows a prayer for unity.
Bernardin’s final words apply to Margaret, and to all of us who long for peace, “When we are at peace, we find the freedom to be most fully who we are, even in the worst of times. We let go of what is nonessential and embrace what is essential. We empty ourselves so that God may more fully work within us. And we become instruments of his peace.”
When have you experienced Christ’s peace most deeply? How do you find peace in the midst of turmoil?
Photo by Sunguk Kim on Unsplash
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Sister Madeline Contorno, OSB, is a Benedictine Sister of Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman, AL. A Golden Jubilarian this year, she has ministered as religious educator, grief counselor, hospice chaplain, and diocesan Renew coordinator. For the last 20 years she has been a pastoral associate in parishes in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. She has served her community in several capacities as vocation director, community secretary, member of monastic council, chapter delegate.