6th Sunday of Easter: ‘The Angel Took Me in Spirit to a Great, High Mountain’

SCRIPTURES & ART: To love Christ is not an empty declaration — it is measured by an objective criterion: ‘keeping my word.’

John Martin, “The Celestial City and the River of Bliss,” 1841
John Martin, “The Celestial City and the River of Bliss,” 1841 (photo: Public Domain)

Each year, the Gospels during Eastertide tend to divide into two groups: the literal and the didactic. The Second and Third Sundays are clearly literal, detailing accounts of Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances. The Fourth Sunday swings both ways, for it is often about Christ the Sheepgate, and so often has some kind of bovine depiction. 

But the Fifth and Sixth Sundays are far more didactic, usually taking excerpts from John’s Gospel about Jesus’ pending departure and his teaching connected with the coming Holy Spirit, including the community of love that his disciples should form. Those didactic teachings are, of course, critical. They just don’t lend themselves quite so easily to artistic depiction.

That’s why today — in something of a rarity in these “Scripture and Art” commentaries — we’ll tenuously connect a piece of art with the Second Reading.

But first the Gospel.

Jesus teaching is taken from his Last Supper discourse. In terms of its two parts, we can say it is very Trinitarian.

The first part is a focus on the meaning of loving Christ. To love Christ is not an affection or an empty declaration. Loving Christ is measured by an objective criterion: “keeping my word.” Elsewhere in John, this is made clear: “if you love me, you will keep my Commandments” (14:15, a passage preceding the beginning of today’s Gospel by eight verses). The one who claims to “know” Christ but not keep his commandments is branded a “liar” (1 John 2:4). 

“Keeping my word” is not just a matter of obedience — it’s not as if Jesus arbitarily assigned that task as his criterion to say one “loves” Christ. No, what’s at stake is far bigger: “keeping my word” is the prerequisite for the Father’s love: real love by the disciple, demonstrated by “keeping my word,” results in the Father’s love and the indwelling of Father and Son in the disciple. Not keeping “my word” means rejecting the Father’s Word because “the word you hear is not mine but that of the Father who sent me.” We cannot know the Father unless we follow his Word, which is not just a teaching but a Person — Jesus Christ — so that in rejecting his teaching, we reject, i.e., refuse to love, the one who sent him with that teaching.

After making clear that love of Christ and following his word go hand in hand, he then turns to the next moment of salvation history, toward which Eastertide is turning: Pentecost. The Father will send the Spirit to teach and reinforce the word Jesus has spoken. This is the Father’s gift of peace: integrity before God and man. “Peace I leave you, my peace I give you.” We heard a variant of that theme in the Gospel of the Second Sunday of Easter (John 20:19, 21-23) four weeks ago, when Jesus greets the frightened Apostles with the word “Peace” and the conferral of the Holy Spirit to give that peace through the pardon of sins.

Jesus is taking farewell of his Apostles: his Ascension is four days away in our liturgical calendar. But his farewell is not something private or utilitarian: it’s not “I’m done teaching and goodbye” but the necessary step for the next chronological step in salvation history, the coming of the Holy Spirit who applies the objective redemption won by Jesus to the individual soul, for that soul’s sake and the whole Church’s. Jesus’s farewell is also eschatological: “I am going away and will come back to you.” In its original context, Jesus may have meant his impending death the next day and his return to the Upper Room three days hence. But it also has a broader context, especially the way the Church uses it in today’s Gospel: Jesus’ “going away” in the Ascension will be followed by a “coming back” as Judge of the Living and the Dead on the Last Day.

The Last Day, “when death will be no more and every tear will be wiped from their eyes” (Revelation 21:4). It is that final, joyous, eternal Easter for which we long and to which the Second Reading refers. It speaks of the New Jerusalem, which descends from heaven, built on the foundation of the Apostles. There is no temple in the New Jerusalem, because the Paschal Lamb dwells there as its true temple, raised forever three days after being destroyed. 

The English Romantic painter John Martin (1789-1854) painted “The Celestial City and the River of Bliss.” This scene of the heavenly Jerusalem is often engraved (even by Martin, see here), so capturing it in paint is worth examining. 

One honestly has to admit that, were it not for Martin’s title, making a connection to Revelation 21 would be a bit forced (which is what I find problematic about “religious” art that offers a gauzy religion). This is a pure early 19th-century Romantic scene, complete with an angel zooming in with a soul to be enlightened. Is it an intersection of the earthly city (or rather, English countryside) below with the celestial city above, almost undiscernable in the pinkish sky to the right? The bright point in the middle of the canvas — is that an earthly sun illuminating the landscape below, and/or a symbol of Christ somehow also illuminating the “celestial city” (which also seems to have its own gleam)?

But if the bottom is earth (we seem to have perhaps two people sitting on a hillock at about five o’clock) then how is the body of water in the middle the “River of Bliss?” In Dante, the last step in Purgatory is when the soul is dipped into the River Lethe, which erases memory of evil. Is this Martin’s “River of Bliss?” In any event, would an English — likely Protestant — painter like Martin have dabbled in Purgatory? Theologically, one might even ask whether this notion of amnesia is justified. Some claim even he memory of sin is inappropriate to heaven, but if the glory of God is man fully alive by redemption, it seems to include redemption from what.

Martin was a popular Romantic painter, and he was especially prolific in Old Testament (see his great painting, “Belshazzar’s Feast”) and in illustrating Milton’s Paradise Lost.