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A biblical reflection on the Life of Communion and Mysticism

Our filial relationship with God and fraternal communion


Gérard Rossé

In exploring the biblical roots of a mysticism of encounter, the author looks to the Synoptic Gospels, Pauline doctrine, and the writings of John. Union with God and fraternal communion are not the result of a particular ascetic practice but rather have their origins in freely given gifts of God received through Jesus, most especially in the moment of  his death and resurrection. The author is a professor at Sophia University Institute in Loppiano (near Florence, Italy).  

The Synoptic Gospels: Two loves in perfect harmony


    Jesus was asked: “Which commandment is the greatest of all?” (Mk 12:28).[1] In quoting Deuteronomy 6:4s (love of God) and Leviticus 19:18 (love of neighbor), Jesus synthesizes the two tablets of the Law (the Decalogue). Hillel and other Rabbis of his time would surely have agreed. However, Jesus does not simply juxtapose these two commandments. Rather, he affirms that they to be made one (Mk 12:31b) or, as Matthew speaks of: love of God “is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it” (Mt 22: 38-39). That is, love of neighbor has the same value: it has the same nature as the first. 

    Jesus has elevated love for neighbor to the level of love for God. This is where the novelty lies: these two commandments cannot be separated. Jesus not only summed up the Law by freeing it from innumerable, meticulous, religious precepts and pure-impure, sinner-just, sacred-profane categorical divisions; He linked God directly and forever to the human person and the human person to God.  

    The Crucified One, whom God resurrected, provides definitive confirmation of this truth: “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me . . . just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Mt 25:35ss).

    Salvation, which signifies communion with God, is a Christological pathway and entails love of neighbor. Thus, two loves in perfect harmony: they do not split the heart of the believer and they do not compete with one another. One does not exclude the other, nor does it exploit the other for its own goals of holiness. 


Paul: “To be in Christ” [2]


    After the Resurrection, the Gospel proclamation was centered in its focus: God has resurrected the Crucified One. From the outset, Jesus’ resurrection was considered the act by which God, in the Crucified One, inaugurated the fulfillment of his plan for humanity. To be “in Christ” signified being in communion with his death-resurrection journey, [3] a journey mediated by faith and the gift of the “Spirit of the Son given in Baptism” (cf. Rm 6) and lived in love (agape). 

    Paul sums up Christian life as one lived in conformity with God’s will: “For in Christ Jesus […] the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Here, the Apostle links together Jesus’ double commandment. From the moment of birth into one’s own fulfilling faith journey -- between the “already” and the “not yet” -- a believer becomes “a new creature,” a child of God. As Romano Penna affirmed: “For Paul, mysticism is the foundation of ethics. Or more precisely, it’s mysticism that forms ethics.”[4] Union with God and fraternal communion are inseparable. One cannot exist without the other.  Through the moment of his solidarity with humanity, when he was seemingly far removed from God, the one Mediator reveals a God who is near to all who are lost. The risen-crucified One is the perennial expression of relationship with God and communion between persons.   


A gratuitous gift

    Paul sought to explain the divine plan manifested through the Risen-Crucified One: Gratuitous justification is meant for every person. For the Pharisees, it was evident that a salvific relationship with God expressed in laws, precepts, and rites, no longer corresponded to God’s will, as manifested by the Crucified Jesus.  “[W]hen the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" (Gal 4:4-6).[5]

    For Paul, it was no longer a mere metaphor to be a child of God and one needed to allow him or herself to be “generated” as such.  But this was impossible either through human effort or even through a religious person’s own knowledge or understandings. Rather, what was needed was faith-filled openness to what God had done through the Crucified One, for the benefit of all.  Indeed, for Paul, faith is a true re-creation of the believer. The Risen-Crucified One, in becoming “life-giving Spirit,” is  that reality  through which God communicates and assembles all humankind in unity. 


A universal opening

    The son/daughter relationship communicated through God’s Spirit is founded upon divine agape.  It is a divine gift; which believers make their own as a personal need. It gives rise to that necessary, filial freedom in front of God that enables this “being one in Christ” in fraternal communion, going beyond all discriminatory boundaries. Agape is gratuitous, unlimited, and open to all. It is in this self-donating relationship that believers fulfill their beings as human persons in ever-deepening similarity to Christ (2 Cor 3:18). In other words,  relationship with God, “in Christ,” is lived out in relationship with others, and in every different reality.

    Another of Paul’s insights is that of “interpreting  mystical experience from a theology of the Cross, one that encompasses a radical incarnation of the divine.”[6] The Crucified One is that everlasting reality by which God is near to all of humankind. Therefore, God is close to every human person even when they may be far from Him or still in search of Him (cf. 1 Cor 1:18ss). Agape is limitless.  Thus, the face of God can be found in every human person. 


John: Communion with the divine “we”


Heart of the New Commandment

    John’s focus is on the discourse that took place during the Last Supper. Jesus’ words were directed to his disciples as he was preparing to depart from this world. Thus they are teachings addressed to the post-Apostolic Church in every epoch. There, in that moment, came the only commandment explicitly formulated by Jesus: the “new commandment.”[7] Jesus invited his disciples to leave behind their old ways of following Him and set aside any nostalgia for a Jesus who was to depart. He then went on to invite them to live fraternal love and, in this way,  give witness to others that “they are his disciples.” After the resurrection, mutual love would allow the Father and the Son to remain a part of the disciples’ lives (cf. Jn 14:23). Through their communion of love, the Risen One would continue giving witness to men and women in every era. 

    In his First Letter, John refers to the “new commandment” to underline the fundamental importance of remaining rooted in fraternal love: “Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word that you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new commandment  […] because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says, "I am in the light," while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness.  Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling.” (1 Jn 2:7s).

    Mutual love lived out in community is seen as the true light capable, little by little, of dispersing darkness from the world. Those who love their neighbor do not fall because they have the light to guide them; their faith is clarified and strengthened.[8]  


Jesus’ prayer for unity

    It is mainly in Jesus’ prayer for unity (Jn 17: 21.23) that we find the link between the  “being one” of the disciples, Christ, the Father, and that of giving witness to the world. Again, the context is that of Jesus’ pending departure from this world. 

    Before, Jesus’ presence had kept the disciples united; how could this unity be maintained when he was no longer with them? A first answer is  found in verse 11: Jesus places them under the Father’s protection, asking the Father to watch over the disciples! : “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (Jn 17:11b).

    Divine protection is  “in the Name of the Father,” meaning within the divine space of the Father’s bosom.[9] The Father’s bosom, however, is not a closed off space.  Rather, the disciples are called to go forth and be His witnesses without ever leaving this temple of divine presence.

    This is further elaborated in verses 20-23 although this “being one” still consists of the same reality.  But the prayer is not addressed to the disciples, rather it is to the Father![10] Thus, unity is not primarily an ideal to be reached, but a reality already given and rooted in the dynamism of divine communion. 

    Here, Jesus’ prayer concerns not only the first generation of believers, but every  post-Apostolic generation to come. "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (Jn 17:20-21).

    The idea of “mutual immanence” used by the Apostle Paul also makes clear the meaning of  being one “as we are one”: I signifies you in me and I in you, with such a measure of reciprocal love that one is the other’s transparency. Thus the reality,  “anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). That is the foundation, source and model of the Christian community. It is its profound identity and its perennial ideal of mutual love. 

    Thus, the gift of unity necessarily leads to universality. Throughout the centuries, thanks to the witness of mutual love in the community which revealed the face of God to all humanity, humankind was given the possibility to open itself up to faith. 

    The gift of unity gives the community its true identity, one of a relational dynamic between believers in divine Communion, and in relation to all the rest of humanity. Unity is also taken up again in the following verses: ”The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (Jn 17: 22-23).

    Once again, John uses the idea of mutual immanence. In this case, however, in a vertical direction between Believers – Christ – the Father: “I in them and you in me.” Jesus present in every believer and in the Father at the same time. He is the mediator. Through him, the relationship between believers and God-Abba takes place. 

    One notes coherent use of the idea of mutual immanence. Jesus never uses it for  relationships between believers: I, in my neighbor, and the latter in me. Similarly, he never attributes such reciprocity between believers with the Father. As the Mediator, Jesus is always at the center of every encounter between brothers/sisters and the encounter  with God. Once reconciled in Christ,  believers live a communion, one of fraternity in a filial relationship with God. 

    In the prayer found in John 17 the theme of love appears here for the first time: it is a love mediated by Christ for his disciples. It is the same love with which the Father loves the Son. It is not solely God’s merciful love, patient and always ready to forgive, but a love that also generates. This divine love through faith leads the community toward the Father’s bosom, and now it must become visible in fraternal communion. The community is called to witness not only by means of the Word but through a life of unity, a life in which divine love is indwelling: the mystery of unity of the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. Without this witness  of unity, the Church’s missionary vocation is sterile.