A few years ago the movie “Cold Mountain” came out, telling the story of a Civil War soldier who had fallen in love just before he marched off to war. The movie portrays his grueling trek home to be reunited with his beloved, only to be tragically killed just after he reaches her.
In today’s Gospel we have the third and last part of Jesus’ prayer just before he completes the final part of his journey back to the One who sent him. In the fourth Gospel Jesus frequently speaks of his earthly sojourn in terms of descending and ascending, of having been sent from and returning to the Father. Paradoxically, he also speaks of never having been parted from the Father. From the opening lines of the Gospel, we are told that the Logos is one with God (1:1) and is ever in the bosom of the Father (1:18).
In today’s Gospel passage Jesus speaks of his profound oneness with the Father that he desires to share completely with those who believe in him. Unlike the parted lovers in “Cold Mountain,” who treasured tattered photos of each other close to their hearts until they would be physically united again, with Jesus and his Father there was never any physical parting.
The unity of Jesus with the Father is not that of an exclusive twosome. Jesus’ fervent prayer is that all may be drawn into this uniting love of the divine persons. He prays not only for those who have come to believe in him, but for all who will believe through their word, as he earnestly desires “that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us” (17:21).
As we are becoming more aware in our day of the oneness of the whole cosmos, we may hear Jesus’ prayer not only for oneness of the human community, but for every part of the created universe. We know that every part of the cosmos is interrelated and connected in one great web of life and that we are physically connected by atoms that have recycled into us from other living beings.
Since this is our reality, perhaps Jesus’ prayer is not so much a prayer that unity may come to be, but rather that we who are already completely and irrevocably united may come to this realization and act accordingly. This realization would have a profound effect not only on how human beings treat one another but on the ways in which human beings care for Earth and all creatures.
This oneness that already binds us together is a gift from God, and like all gifts, it can be accepted or rejected. One way in which we can receive the gift is to enter into contemplative prayer, seeking and longing for oneness with our beloved.
In the first reading we see Stephen looking intently up to heaven, and he sees the glory of God. While God is not to be found physically up in the heavens, this expression captures his deliberate intent to seek God and experience the nearness of God’s loving and uniting presence. Stephen’s murderers, by contrast, cover their ears so that they will not hear the whispers of love emanating from the divine and radiating through Stephen. As Stephen completes his earthly journey, he refuses to renounce his union with his executioners, as he prays, as did Jesus, for forgiveness for them.
The author of Revelation, in the second reading, provides us a mantra by which we may pray for oneness. The word come is like a drumbeat, inviting us to pray again and again to let our beloved come and transform us with unifying love. Unlike the tragic ending of “Cold Mountain,” there is nothing to inhibit this uniting love coming to full flourishing in us, if we continually pray for it.