New Heavens and a New Earth

Monday of the Fourth Week of Lent: Isaiah 65:17-21, John 4:43-54.

Yesterday we leapt forward, pushing our clocks ahead an hour as we transitioned into Daylight Savings Time. My wife spent her life getting up early to swim (around 5 am!) and so this transition always bothered her because just as the sun would be making its way into her morning workouts, she’d be plunged back into darkness for another month. Yesterday, she went walking with a good friend who confided to her that she actually sets her alarm clock back 5 minutes each day for a month leading up to Daylight Savings Time because she has such a hard time adjusting to the change. On the other hand, I am more of an evening person, so I am more bothered in the fall when my evenings suddenly go black much sooner than I thought they would. It’s an interesting lesson in how we create little realities for ourselves that sometimes are revealed for what they are: our own constructions of happiness and comfort.

The Persistence of Memory (1931), Salvador Dalí | Image from the Museum of Modern Art.

Sure enough, yesterday I had a moment of elation when I looked out the window after dinner and realized how light it was. I could go for a walk, enjoy the sunshine, maybe putter around in the garden! Suddenly new possibilities were open to me that haven’t been open for the past I-don’t-know-how-long. Silly, I know, but that was how I felt. And what really changed? Nothing but an arbitrary change of the clock. 

This incredible shift in mindset is something we’re asked to experience in today’s readings. And rather than an arbitrary clock change, an actual new reality has opened up between heaven and earth to cause this change in mindset.

If we allow ourselves to be complacent in what we think we know of the New Testament, the gospel reading appears like any other healing story. A man asks Jesus to heal his son and Jesus does it without even having to go to the man’s house. But if we allow the new reality of God-come-to-earth as Christ to illuminate our souls like we allow the newfound post-dinner hour of light to illuminate our outlook on the evening, something altogether different is happening.

St. John tells us that Jesus is traveling back to Galilee after coming north through Samaria. In the verses just prior to this, Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well and in their conversation He reveals to her, “I am the Christ” (Jn 4:26). Based on His conversation with her, she believes and so does an entire town of Samaritans who get Him to spend several days with them. Who He is — the reality of the Messiah come to earth — has dawned upon them and changed their entire outlook on their own lives. To signal that a new spiritual reality is making itself known, a reality more important and fundamental than the earthly reality, Jesus rebuffs His disciples urgings to have Him eat by responding, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (Jn 4:34). He goes on to encourage them to help Him usher in the new mindset that should accompany this new reality: “look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together” (Jn 4:35b-36). Jesus is trying to get the Apostles to notice this new reality in which they have a part to play.

Christ Enthroned Over the River of Life (1220), Beatus of Liébana | Creative Commons, courtesy of the Morgan Library & Museum. This is MS M.429 (fol. 141), called the Las Huelgas Apocalypse, the latest dated (1220) and largest surviving manuscript of a Spanish tradition of illuminated commentaries on the Apocalypse by the monk Beatus of Liébana. The series of manuscripts constitutes Spain’s most important contribution to medieval manuscript illumination.

We are so used to being Christian that we no longer comprehend the massive change of reality that happened at the Incarnation. Perhaps we never fully understood it. Fr. Jean Corbon, OP, writes, “In Jesus the entire energy of love impregnates human energy with an ‘anointing’ that makes this human energy its own and gives it life” (Wellspring of Worship, 40). In other words, the divine love that continually flows between Father, Son and Holy Spirit now descends into humanity to find a new home there, to begin to work within humanity until the end of time. Corbon reminds us that the first creation moment saw everything come from nothingness into being, but “In the new creation that is beginning here, he who is eternally begotten of the Father is fashioned out of living earth, namely, the entire being of his mother” (37). This new creation is something that has never existed before: fully God and fully human, a man to change history and the fabric of spiritual being.

This is what the Father promises to Isaiah in the first reading today! He proclaims, “Lo, I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; The things of the past shall not be remembered or come to mind. Instead, there shall always be rejoicing and happiness in what I create.” The newness of our beings, when divinity has come to dwell among us, cannot be overemphasized. It is an entirely new creation, creating a new heaven and earth that did not exist before. He continues: “For I create Jerusalem to be a joy and its people to be a delight; I will rejoice in Jerusalem and exult in my people.” The Catechism teaches us that the Church herself, the bride of Christ, is the New Jerusalem that God promises. It exists on both Heaven and earth and is beloved to the Lord.

What we encounter in Chapter 4 of John’s gospel is the beginning of the New Jerusalem, brought about during the new creation that Jesus Christ has ushered in. This is a new reality filling the world with light — the Samaritans see it like new hours granted by Daylight Savings Time. Can we? Does it affect our mindset as much as the arbitrary change in hours does?

New Jerusalem Revealed (contemporary), Alexander Sorsher | Image from pixels.com.

When the royal official in today’s gospel reading asks Jesus to come to his house to heal his son, Jesus responds, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe.” Perhaps Jesus is contrasting the man’s state of mind with that of the Samaritans, who believed in Him purely by encountering Him and speaking with Him. No “signs and wonders” were required apart from the truth that He spoke. But the man just plows on as if not hearing: “Sir, come down before my child dies.”

What is going on here?

I think this speaking-past-one-another illustrates how this man is oblivious to the reality that the Messiah has ushered in. The man has not come to encounter Christ — he is living in his usual, un-transformed world that is dominated by fear of death. He has come not to encounter a new reality that does away with that fear but instead to find something that will, in fact, confirm his fears of the ultimate domination of death by keeping it at bay for a while. Notably, though, he does not come to “test” Jesus — it seems that he already has placed a good deal of hope in Him. Thus, when Jesus says that they need signs and wonders “to believe,” it seems that He is referring to a deeper “belief” than the more surface belief that He is a type of healer. He seems to be just stating a fact of human nature. He may be gently lamenting that this man isn’t of the right mindset, but He nonetheless performs this wondrous act of healing. He heals the man’s son not to prove that He’s a wonder-worker, but to affect the man’s entire mindset on the reality that walks among them. He performs this miracle so that the man might be shocked out of his usual, un-transformed world and believe in something greater: the new creation and the New Jerusalem being built around him. This is why Jesus always points back to the Father — it is the Creator who is accomplishing this new creation by incarnating His Word in humanity. Belief in Jesus is belief in the Father, belief in salvation, belief in a new spiritual reality.

How curious that we can be more affected by our clock changes than changes in the fabric of our spiritual reality! As Christians, we’re called to become more attentive to our spiritual selves (by dying to our worldly senses and desires) so that we can be awestruck by the Christ Event dumping immense light into our lives. That’s what Lent is here for: to help us become aware once again, appreciative once again, transformed once again.

 

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