Our reflection today is taken from the 17th Chapter St. John’s Gospel, and is known as the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus. In that great prayer to the Father, Christ pleads for His disciples on the night before He suffers and dies, seeking to secure us with the gifts that He considers to be the most important of all.
One of those prayers—in fact, the one that runs like a mantra throughout that entire chapter—is the prayer for unity. Over and over again, He prays “that they may be one” (John 17:11, 21, 22, 23).
But this unity which Christ calls us to is not something of our own making. It does not happen because we will or desire it. We are not united around some given set of principals or ideals; we are not one because we all like each other and consider it splendid to spend time together (although I hope we do!).
Christ tells us in that prayer to the Father that we are united as one in Him. He prays to the Father “that they may be one as we are one” (John 14:11), and “As you, Father are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us” (John 17:21). Again, He continues to pray to the Father before them all, “I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one” (John 17:23). We are united as one because God lives in us and we have life in Him. We are united in union with God.
That is the one driving force behind the life, ministry and prayer of St. John of the Cross: Union with God. It is his passion, his one great desire, his purpose for living...and dying…and living forever in God. Union.
But union with God, we find in our second reading from St. Paul, is conditional. The love of God is unconditional; God simply loves us. Period. But union is different. We cannot live however we want and expect to be in union with God. We cannot follow our own way, our own path, and then invite God to join us to Himself. We must constantly surrender to Him, be guided and directed by Him, submit to His will and His plan for our lives.
St. Paul offers another condition in that second reading. He says that we will share in the very Glory of God. Through Christ we have become sons and daughters in the Son; we call God “Abba, Father.” We inherit eternal life in God with Christ if…if….
If, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
Union with God and sharing in the eternal glory of God cannot be separated from the cross of Christ here on this earth. Sharing with Christ in His suffering and in His glory is the essence of our union with Him. And so it is throughout all the writings of St. John of the Cross.
One of the great images that St. John of the Cross uses to describe this union—in glory and in suffering—is the image of night. We are all familiar with the image of the Dark Night of the Soul.
People will often use, or mis-use, that image. They will say things like, “Oh, that was an awful year. It was my Dark Night” or “I am going through the worse time ever. I’m in the Dark Night.”
But St. John of the Cross never refers to the Dark Night as a negative experience. It is never something to be avoided or overcome. It is the very place where we experience the presence of the Living God.
In The Ascent of Mount Carmel he offers three reasons or purposes why God draws the soul into the journey of the Dark Night (Ascent, Book I, Chapter 2).
The first reason or purpose is so that the soul may undergo a purgation of the senses. We need firstly to be purged from our earthly attachments: purged from attachments to sin, purged of our attachment even to things which are good but are not God.
Secondly, the soul, in the darkness, discovers what it means to live by faith. We do not rely entirely on what we sense and feel when it comes to our relationship with God. We do not live by what we see happening around us, nor do we base our spiritual lives completely on external situations and experiences. We live by faith in the promises of God in the Scriptures, in the teachings of our Church, and in the Sacraments. In the darkness we live, and grow, by faith.
Finally, when the soul is purified and learns to grow in faith, it is then, in the night, that God unites Himself to her. Night is the time for lovers. It is in the night when husband and wife come together in that most intimate of unions. Night is the place where God unites Himself to the soul that seeks Him and yearns for Him, even and especially in suffering and in darkness.
As we celebrate this Feast of St. John of the Cross, we can ask ourselves:
Where is God purifying me at this time in my life? Where do I experience the purgation of the senses that always leads me closer to Him?
Where is God challenging me to grow in faith, to trust in Him and His promises and not in myself, my feelings, or the things around me?
That is the place where He is calling us to union with Himself. May we be drawn ever closer to union with God in the darkness of faith as we continue to yearn and wait for Christ, the Light of the World, this Christmas.