5th Sunday of Easter: ‘I Am the Way, the Truth and the Life’

SCRIPTURES & ART: Today’s first reading is depicted in Christian art by a fresco of great 15th-century artist Fra Angelico

Fra Angelico, Lunette of the West Wall in the Niccoline Chapel, Vatican City, 1447-1449
Fra Angelico, Lunette of the West Wall in the Niccoline Chapel, Vatican City, 1447-1449 (photo: Public Domain)

Writing an essay on the weekly Scripture readings in art grows more challenging in the second half of the Easter season, because the Gospels transition from Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances and the message of the Good Shepherd — themes either concrete or well-documented in art — to more abstract theology, usually taken from Jesus’ Last Supper Discourse in John’s Gospel, as he prepares to take leave of the Apostles at the Ascension.

Today’s Gospel, for example, speaks of Jesus’ imminent departure on “the way” known to the Apostles. When Philip (whose feast we celebrated last week) asks about that path, Jesus makes clear: “I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Important theology, and we’ll comment on it, but it doesn’t lend itself readily to artistic depiction. For today’s art, we’ll turn to the First Reading, where the Acts of the Apostles speaks of the first deacons. But first — as befits its pride of place — the Gospel.

Jesus is readying his Apostles for his taking leave of them. We read this Gospel today in light of the Resurrection, as we move toward the Ascension, but the immediate context of these texts is the Last Supper: Jesus will be arrested, probably within the next six hours, and dead within 24. (John, of course, wrote — like we read — those texts in light of the Resurrection.) “Strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered” warns Zechariah (13:7), a text Mark (14:27) quotes in the context of the Last Supper. That is just what happened within those next six or so hours in the Garden of Gethsemane: as Jesus is arrested and led away, the Apostles scatter to the four winds. 

Last week, Jesus reminded us that the Good Shepherd leads the sheep. He’s out in front, giving them direction, pointing out the path. When Philip asks for directions in today’s Gospel, he’s looking for a map. But neither Philip nor the sheep need a GPS. The sheep follow their Shepherd’s Voice, and Philip’s path is Christ, “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” It’s not a question of what but whom the disciple follows: “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” is the path charted by a living relationship with God, not chart-reading skills. 

But while the immediate context for today’s Gospel was Christ’s pending death, we see its multilayered meanings by its use at this point in the Easter season. The Church reads this Gospel (as undoubtedly the Gospel writers, who also wrote after Easter, intended) as also pointing to the Ascension, something not even in the wildest imaginations of the Apostles sitting in the Upper Room that sad first Holy Thursday night. In his Farewell Discourse in John, Jesus repeatedly speaks of sending his Spirit, the Paraclete. In John (20:22-23), Jesus first sends his Spirit on Easter Sunday night, when he empowers the Apostles to forgive sins. We read that passage three weeks ago, on the Second Sunday of Easter. But these same texts also fit in anticipation of the full outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the event for which the Church at this point in the liturgical year is now readying us three weeks hence.

During Eastertide, the Church’s First Readings often focus on the life of the early Church as found in the Acts of the Apostles. Today’s First Reading treats the development of the diaconate. Two weeks ago, we heard that this little community “devoted themselves to the teaching of the Apostles and the communal life” and that, in their concrete circumstances in Israel, they “had all things in common” (Acts 2:42-44).

Today’s First Reading shows that, far from being paradisiacal socialism (an oxymoron if ever there was one), communal ownership can lead to bickering about fairness in distributive justice: Greek widows (presumably the minority) were thought to be shortchanged vis-à-vis Jewish widows in the daily rations. The Apostles see their calling as teachers and celebrants, so they call for the selection of “seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom …” to assume this ministry of service. The seven, who include Stephen, the Church’s first martyr, are ordained by the Apostles through that fundamental act of passing on ministry and power: the laying on of hands.

Today’s first reading is depicted in Christian art by a fresco of great 15th-century artist Fra Angelico, found in the Niccoline Chapel of the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City. It is part of a broader cycle dedicated to St. Stephen. 

On the left, we see the ordination of Stephen as a deacon. Peter is the “ordaining prelate,” an older man in his usual gold garment. Stephen kneels, wearing a dalmatic (the square and liturgically colored outer vestment whose priestly counterpart is the chasuble). His shaved pate is obviously tonsured. Peter is handing Stephen a (presumably empty) chalice and paten. This alludes to the notion of the traditio instrumentorum, the “handing over of the instruments” which the Council of Florence (the Council that had just concluded in Fra Angelico’s day) spoke of in connection with ordination. Interestingly, the traditio instrumentorum of an empty paten and chalice was done for the subdiaconate, which Pope St. Paul VI abolished in his 1972 Apostolic Letter Ministeria Quaedam; the traditio instrumentorum for the diaconate was the Book of the Gospels. 

Fra Angelico’s depiction of St. Stephen’s ordination is somewhat anachronistic, i.e., it includes details that come from later in history. Dalmatics, for example, would become the established vestment for deacons about 300 years in the future. Likewise, the rite of tonsure is in the future. If anything, Jews of Jesus’ day who were specially consecrated to God (like John the Baptist) took the Nazirite vow (Numbers 6:5), which prohibited cutting one’s hair (which is why Samson’s haircut at Delilah’s hands is so important — Judges 16:17-18). Finally, Acts speaks of the diaconate, not the subdiaconate, which also seems to be first mentioned later in Church documents. Was there even a traditio instrumentorum at the time? How does one explain Stephen receiving the instruments subsequently handed historically to a subdeacon?

Finally, Acts puts its emphasis on the deacon as attending to communal service and charity, not liturgical functions. While the latter may have early also become a diaconal duty, it is not explicitly mentioned at this juncture in the text. That may suggest that what was liturgically characteristic later of deacons and subdeacons — reading the Gospel and preparing the bread and wine for the priest to offer (which is why subdeacons received an empty paten and chalice but newly ordained priests a paten with a host and a chalice with wine in it) — is being read back by Fra Angelico into this Apostolic Age scene.

Who are the men standing in rank behind Stephen? I’m not sure, because my copy of the fresco is not detailed enough for me to read the names in their halos. Could they be the other deacons mentioned in Acts? (Together with Stephen, they total seven.) But why would they also not be dressed as deacons, or kneeling to be ordained? Or, because Fra Angelico is focused in this series of frescoes on Stephen, the others are yet to be ordained? Or are they Apostles? It seems not, for why have an incomplete apostolic college? 

The right part of the fresco shows Deacon Stephen doing what Acts speaks of the original deacons being ordained to do: tend to the distribution of communal temporal goods. The widow in gray, walking away from Stephen, appears to be carrying a bread basket, but the widow in white and rose seems to be receiving alms rather than bread. The man behind her, in blue, also looks to be expecting alms. Also, Acts’ “widows” seems to be extended to the Biblical pool of the vulnerable — “widows and orphans” — as well as others in need of charity.

Fra Angelico (c. 1395-1455) was a Dominican friar and one of the early Renaissance artists in what is today Italy. He distinguished himself in his community as an illuminator of manuscripts, followed by work in frescoes in Florence. He arrived in Rome in 1445 to work at papal invitation, including decorating the Niccoline Chapel with a series on two deacons of the early Church, Stephen and Lawrence. He died in Rome and was beatified by St. John Paul II in 1982.