By Fr. Thomas Catania
HAD HE BEEN ABLE to foresee the proliferation of lawyer jokes in subsequent centuries, John the Evangelist might not have been so quick to transpose his insight into what the abiding presence of the Risen Jesus meant to believers into lawyer-ly terms.
For, although it is open to a variety of renditions in English, the term Paraclete – companion, advisor, assurer, even comforter – can be translated “defense attorney,” as in “one who stands up for you during a trial and does the talking in that kind of language you don’t quite understand yourself.” Also, as in “one whose job it is to get you off the hook.”
All the images I’ve suggested for a paraclete should make clear that your paraclete is one who stands alongside you, on your side. The reason I think the legal image so apt is that it calls the image of a trial to mind, and points up what we might call the flip side of John’s image (given in last Sunday’s text) of how the Risen Lord relates to us who are, as it were, left behind, so that John’s Jesus can say, “I will not leave you orphaned … you will see (remember, in John, that means “experience”) me as one who has life (and that can only be the life of the Father, since we have already heard Jesus say that he is the way to real life – and whose life is more true or real than God’s?).”
He will not leave us orphaned, because He will stand next to us in our trials; He will be our companion, advisor, assurer, comforter, paraclete. Last week we were assured that we would live in the Risen Lord; this week we are told that the Risen Lord will live in us.
The formula is striking, because it is the one used in the prologue to the Gospel of John, wherein he describes how the Word, the Logos of the Father (that’s Jesus) is related to the Father: “the Logos from all eternity is, to use the Latin of St. Jerome, apud Deum, ‘in the intimate company of God.” (English translations weaken the word and render it, “the Word was ‘with’ God,” but Jerome got John’s Greek word right: “in the house of/in the bosom of”) He would then live apud nos — in our intimate company, that is, within us, not a neighbor whispering in our ear, but in our house, in our heart, as the spirit pulsating within us, guiding, directing, defending. Giving us courage, that is, to stand up to the trial, and giving us the means to the victory.
For the trial – that test, that competition, that fight to the finish – is real, and John knows it; it is no mere formal courtroom procedure but a continuation of the struggle Jesus waged with the Evil One, whose presence John makes unmistakable when, as the supper scene begins, He notes that Satan entered Judas’ heart and “it was night.” (John 13: 27; 30).
In response to that satanic presence, Jesus “groans” (like an athlete going into the final round) or, as many of our translations say, “he (is) troubled in spirit.” But He would not have the hearts of His own “be troubled” (John 14:1), for He has won the victory, the fruits and effects of which are yet to trickle into the lives and hearts of us.
Till they are all settled there, we may feel anxious, uncertain, and so he assures us that the vigor that saw him through to victory will be ours as our strengthening paraclete. And we will see (“experience”) Him as the life-giver, the life-support system in the shadowy hours, and we will know, because what He gives could come from nowhere else, that he “is in the Father” and we are “in him.”
The passage ends with a reference that is also somewhat idiosyncratic in John’s vocabulary. “The one who obeys the commandments … from me is the one who loves me.” It seems that after all the talk about intimacy and “abiding in” Him and He “in us,” we are back where we were in the realm of law and legalism. (Not, be it noted, that we were ever simply there in the covenant of Sinai!) The words appear to be a let-down.
“So,” I can hear you say, “it is, after all, a matter of doing the right stuff if we want God to love and save us.”
“No!” hear me saying, “it is not.”
The formulation is one more of John’s rhetorical/poetic devices that needs to be turned on its head in English if we’re to get it. We might hear the message better were we to hear it phrased this way: the evidence that (Jesus) and (you) have of that intimacy, that love, is that you are able to hold fast to his pattern of life – as He puts it, “to love one another as I have loved you.”
This kind of love, which lays down its life for the other, is unrealistic by the standards we can grasp with our minds/spirits. This kind of love demands too much and cannot possibly be what we are about. But that is the reasoning of one who does not “live in” Jesus or in whom Jesus does not “live,” one who is not at all convinced that within him or her there is a paraclete driving humanity beyond its supposed barriers into the life of the Father.
Follow the reasoning of John and you can see that, once we are really convinced that this intimacy with the Risen One is not just pious poetry but a real description of what the believer’s quality of life is, we can “love one another as he has loved us,” we can walk in tune with the Incarnate Word who always and only does what the Father directs – “It is the Father who lives in me accomplishing his works” —empowering humans to love each other as God does.
Just assenting to what John teaches us here is a struggle in itself, a kind of trial. But we are not doomed to be losers in the trial. Not at all – we have our paraclete!