We seem to tire so easily of the ordinary in life. Many of us are constantly looking for something new, something exciting. We want to be entertained by life and to have the latest of everything, whether that means style, electronic equipment or fame. We are often taken in by the advertisements that insist: This is really new, and you can’t live without it!
Advertisers are not the first to make such claims. Nor are they completely misleading. We are certainly living in times of rapid change. In many cases, we purchase an item one week, and there is a new and improved version the next. Furthermore, it is often extremely difficult to live, much less advance, without some contemporary devices. We are always faced with questions like: How new and improved does everything have to be? And what can I live without?
The readings for today make precisely this claim: This is really new, and you can’t live without it! But the biblical authors are not talking about something that is merely new and improved today but will probably be replaced tomorrow. When they speak of “a new heaven and a new earth,” “a new Jerusalem” or “a new commandment,” they are referring to eschatological reality. The Greek word used here indicates the extraordinary character of this newness. This is an act of God.
The reading from the Book of Revelation sets the context for our reflections. The vision found there is rich in symbolic language. The new heaven and new earth represent all of reality. Within it we find the new Jerusalem, with its people personified as a bride. Marital imagery characterizes the loving union between God and the people. This is a joyous time, a time of unending happiness.
The scene is really a vision of the new age of eschatological fulfillment inaugurated by the death and resurrection of Jesus. When he burst forth from the grave, he completely altered the powers of both heaven and earth. He invited his followers to enter a new Jerusalem, where they would dwell with God in their midst. It might be better to say that they would dwell there in the midst of God. This awe-inspiring vision declares that everything has been transformed.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus instructs his disciples to “love one another.” Here he speaks of agápe, a love that requires total commitment and trust. It is the kind of love with which God loves us, a love that should be the model of the love we have for others. When we examine the demands of this love, we realize just how revolutionary it is and what a change in attitude it requires.
We may not be called to the same kind of missionary activity as were Paul and Barnabas. But we must be as unselfish in our service of others as were these early Christians. Family life can be very trying, and not all people are exhilarated by the work they do. Still, it is precisely in situations such as these that we might be called to “undergo many hardships.”
The new kind of love that Jesus holds out to us might require us to open doors that we have closed against others, to respond to appeals that cry out for our help, to forgive oversights or mistakes that someone may have made. This love opens our eyes to facts that we might otherwise overlook: that the poor in the world belong to our family; that those who live in despair might be saved by our care of them; that peace can come to the world through our efforts. “This is how all will know that [we] are [his] disciples, that [we] have love for one another.”
John’s vision of the new heaven and the new earth remains in the future only because we have failed to live it in our present. Jesus has risen from the dead, and now all things are new. “The old order has passed away.” We have entered the age of fulfillment. If we expect this to be Pollyannaland, we are badly mistaken. It is within our power, however, to fashion a world, a country, a neighborhood, a family where there is genuine love for one another and sincere concern for the well-being of all.
Our societies do not always foster such unselfishness. That is why people who do live this extraordinary love stand out from the crowd. They might be ridiculed for their manner of living, but they nonetheless show by it that they are God’s people and God does indeed dwell with them.
Shortly after the Second Vatican Council, banners appeared with the message: We are Easter people! The slogan may not have had a wide appeal, but the challenge it implies continues to be true. Indeed, we are Easter people. We have been raised with Jesus from the dead, and now no power on earth can really conquer us. Even the primordial forces of chaos and evil, symbolized by the raging sea, have been vanquished. What is holding us back from transforming the world?