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James T. KeaneMay 19, 2023
Man holding hands on BiblePhoto by Patrick Fore, courtesy of Unsplash.

A Reflection for Friday of the Sixth Week of Easter

You can find today’s readings here.

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn,
while the world rejoices;
you will grieve, but your grief will become joy.
When a woman is in labor, she is in anguish because her hour has arrived;
but when she has given birth to a child,
she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy
that a child has been born into the world.
So you also are now in anguish.
But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice,
and no one will take your joy away from you.
On that day you will not question me about anything.
Amen, amen, I say to you,
whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you.” (
Jn 16:20-23)

Every teacher of theology has a moment when he or she needs to hear today’s Gospel reading. In fact, I’d take that a step further: Anyone who is pursuing a degree in academic theology or works in religion journalism or is employed by the church in a professional capacity has a moment when he or she needs to hear today’s Gospel.

And no, it’s not “you will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices” that I’m talking about. Rather, I think that today’s Gospel speaks to anyone who feels like their technical and academic study of subjects like scripture, ecclesiology, moral theology, church history and more has stolen some of the joy out of what should be encounters with God’s grace. It also speaks to anyone whose work might bring them to a hard-earned cynicism about the church because they have seen “how the sausage gets made” in terms of our institutional structures and organizations. And it might speak to all of us when we inevitably find a divine institution is chock-full of people who are all too human.

An ironic or cynical detachment from the elements of one’s faith that once brought joy—especially in an age when a hermeneutic of suspicion is king—is not necessarily the end of the story.

I felt it most keenly when I was in graduate school for theology (though let’s be honest, being a religion journalist can also make a stone of the heart): After three years in the classroom on both sides of the podium, the Scripture passages I once read with interest and excitement, or the sacramental encounters that were once shrouded in mystery, or those moments of meeting a renowned theologian or writer that once produced a sort of shrieky glee usually available only to Taylor Swift fans? I felt like a lot of the joy had gone out of them. And my experience of church institutions at the time offered me more chances for sour cynicism than enthusiastic participation. If you’ll excuse a terrible scriptural pun, I felt like my faith had become work.

Today’s Gospel also appeared during the week I completed graduate school, which is why I remember it today, because the following lines struck me then: “But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you. On that day you will not question me about anything.” It is the encounter with me, Jesus tells us, and not your questions or answers to anything else, that is the source of ultimate joy.

The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur once wrote of the “second naivete” a modern believer must embrace in order to live a vibrant, life-giving faith. An ironic or cynical detachment from the elements of one’s faith that once brought joy—especially in an age when a hermeneutic of suspicion is king—is not necessarily the end of the story. It is possible, having internalized and integrated the lessons of life and study and experience, to approach once again all the elements of our faith with a child’s joy, a position where not every question has to be asked and answered. In the heart of every grumpy old cynic is a child seeking again to know the thrill of an honest faith.

We have to want it, sure: “Whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you.” And we have to seek it in the right places, which are not always the places where we are most comfortable. But still, Jesus’ promise remains: “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.

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