The number of children worldwide who have lost parents is estimated at 133 million. The aid group SOS Children’s Villages reports that every day 5,760 more children become orphans. In sub-Saharan Africa, some 15 million children have lost their parents to the AIDS epidemic. Millions become orphans because of national and international conflict and natural disasters. To meet their needs for security, a home, education, health care and love is a daunting task. Frequently sprinkled throughout the Hebrew Scriptures are reminders to take care of orphans, who are usually linked with widows and foreigners, the most vulnerable in the society (e.g., Ex 22:21-22; Dt 24:19-22).
In this Sunday’s Gospel, which is part of the farewell discourse, Jesus assures his disciples he will not leave them orphaned. His impending departure will not leave them bereft of his love. They will not be homeless and will not need to be cared for by strangers. He promises to send “another advocate” to be with them always. The Greek word parakletos, “paraclete,” has a rich array of nuances. It literally means “called to the side” of another. It can have a legal sense, like “advocate” or “defense attorney.” More generally, it can refer to a helper, mediator or intercessor, one who appears on another’s behalf. Another nuance is that of “comforter,” as expressed in the Sequence for Pentecost, when we pray “You of all Consolers best” and ask for rest, refreshment and solace.
What is paradoxical in this last aspect is that the kind of consolation provided by the Comforter is not of the sort that wraps us in a warm, fuzzy cocoon and allows us to remain there forever. It is more akin to the loving nudge with which a mother bird impels her fledglings to take wing. As the theologian Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., puts it, “This is what the Holy Spirit does, thrusting us out of our ecclesiastical nest into mission.” In order to be able to be thrust out, the Consoler also gives us the sure realization that we are never abandoned. We have a home in the One who draws us ever more deeply into mutual indwelling. “You are in me and I in you” (14:20).
The first reading gives us a glimpse into what results when disciples make their home in Christ and allow the generativity of the Spirit to be unleashed. Stephen, chosen as a minister from among the Greek-speakers, esteemed as one “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:5), becomes fearless enough to go into the region of Samaria and there proclaim Christ. His intrepid venture among a people previously thought to be enemies impels Peter and John also to leave the nest in Jerusalem and to continue Jesus’ mission to the lost and forgotten. The fourth Evangelist depicts the mission to Samaria begun by Jesus himself in an exchange with a woman at a well, who brings her townsfolk to believe in Jesus as savior of the world (Jn 4:4-42).
Jesus does not leave any orphaned. He is the embodiment of a motherly God who never forgets her children (Is 49:15) and a fatherly God who protects orphans and widows (Ps 68:5). Just as parental love at its best is unconditional, so too is God’s love. Although some translations of Jn 14:15 and 14:21 seem to imply that God’s love and the sending of another Advocate are conditioned by human response, the focus is actually on the mutuality of the love. The divine love has been made manifest in God’s gift of the Son (Jn 3:16); human love of God is expressed in the keeping of the commandments.
As Raymond Brown points out in his commentary on the Gospel according to John in the Anchor Bible series, “Love and keeping the commandments are actually two different facets of the same way of life. Love motivates the keeping of the commandments, and indeed love is the substance of Jesus’ commandments” (Jn 13:34).