In Henry V, Shakespeare has Henry steel his men for battle against the overwhelming odds of 10,000 French to a few hundred English troops by telling them “the fewer men, the greater share of honor” and reminding them that he regards them not as servants, nor as mercenaries for hire, nor as subjects, but as: “We few, we happy few; we band of brothers; /for he today that sheds his blood with me/shall be my brother.”
This speech, which still has the power to move us at a distance of five centuries, is deeply rooted in the Christian conception of friendship. And such friendship is how both the Incarnation and the Resurrection, as well as the mission of the Church, begin.
The meeting of Mary and Elizabeth is fraught with the sense of “we few, we happy few.” Mary and Elizabeth know the delightful joy that, in a very minor key, we have experienced in a childhood friendship rooted in being “the only ones who know” about some delight: say, rock collecting or Doctor Who fandom or the music of Fleet Foxes.
God takes this natural sense of joy in finding somebody who shares our love for some small and secret thing and raises it in Mary and Elizabeth’s friendship to Christian friendship in their mutual love for Jesus. They are (with the unborn John the Baptist), quite literally, the only ones who know. They, above all, can say, “We few, we happy few.”
And Jesus, grown to manhood, does the same thing by forming a “band of brothers” out of the unlikely rabble that is the apostolic band and, in the Resurrection, again revealing himself to them. Some wonder why Jesus didn’t appear to everybody, but only to a relatively few. Note again that word: few.
Jesus communicates his revelation personally, through the love that is called “friendship,” when he communicates the Resurrection to his disciples. His purpose is not a triumph of mass advertising, but the establishment of real relationship and the creation of a fellowship of friends who will be able to withstand and overcome the hostility of all the world. The revelation is paradoxically meant for the world that will do all it can to destroy it.
That is why these friendships, like all Christian friendships, are sacrificial relationships. Jesus brings together real enemies: Jew, Gentile; slave, free; male, female; German, Pole; rich, poor; collaborator, freedom fighter; abuser, victim. What does it cost him to do it? Paul tells us:
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end” (Ephesians 1:13-16).
As with Henry V, the fellowship of Jesus’ friends is rooted in the willingness to spend one’s blood for friendship. The creation of friends in Christ cost Jesus his very life. Henry says, “We would not die in that man’s company/that fears his fellowship to die with us.” Jesus says, “He who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13).
And the apostles, with rare exceptions, follow Jesus to their doom — in hope — for the same reason the English follow Henry: because they are confident, not in victory, but in him. They march out to do battle with a world that is overwhelmingly against them and commanded by nothing less than principalities and powers.
They overcome all this by the grace of the Holy Spirit — a power given to us, as to them, by the great sacrament of confirmation. Of which, more next time.
Mark Shea is a Register columnist and blogger.