“The Eschatological ‘Little While’ in Jn 16” (5/30/2019)
Fr. Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP
Jesus says in our Gospel today, “A little while and you will no longer see me, and again a little while later and you will see me.” These same basic phrases get repeated throughout our Gospel today. It sounds very peculiar. What is going on? He could have said it only one. Why does it get repeated?
In John’s Gospel hardly anything happens by accident. John is a master of the symbolic. So it’s highly significant that this phrase, “a little while” appears 7 times in this passage. As you know, “7” is a very important number in the Bible. It signifies completeness or fullness. There’s something eschatological about 7. It points to the last things, the end of time. In the Book of Genesis, on the 7th day of creation, the Lord rests. The work of creation is completed so there is a Sabbath rest.
But this points to a final Sabbath rest that will come only in heaven. In the Book of Revelation, there are the 7 seals that are broken open as the final destiny of the world is revealed. The final meaning of human history is made known as the 7 seals are broken open by the Lamb who was slain.
So in our Gospel today, we have 7 times, this phrase, “a little while.” And this “little while” is emphasized even more as the disciples ask, “What is this ‘little while’ of which he speaks?” That puts the question before us too, What is this “little while”?
Well, we notice that this “little while” is mixed up with this theme of seeing and not seeing the Lord. “A little while and you will no longer see me, and again a little while later and you will see me.” We do not see the Lord, at present, but this lasts only a little while. In just a little while we will see the Lord. It won’t be long before we see the Lord in full splendor, in the glory of heaven, either by his return in the Second Coming or in our meeting him after death. It will be just a little while.
The early Church in biblical times was taken up with this expectation of the Lord’s coming. Marantha, Come Lord Jesus!, they cry out. And at the end of the Book of Revelation, Jesus assures us, “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” “‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come Lord Jesus!” And here in the Gospel, Jesus reminds us that it will only be a “little while” more until it happens and he returns to us or we return to him.
Monastic life is very much oriented toward the Eschaton, toward the last things and the life of heaven. There God will be all in all and adoration of the Lamb will be the key task of the day. Love will reign. All of Christian life, but especially monastic life, stretches out toward the next life of heaven. And it will be only a “little while” until this reaching out toward God will be fulfilled. Life is short. Eternity with God lasts forever.
At the moment we are in this “little while” of not seeing the Lord. We now walk by faith not by sight. But it will only be a “little while” until we are seeing the Lord, face-to-face, heart-to-heart. Yet even now, by faith, in the midst of not seeing there is a bit of seeing, as in a mirror darkly.
So in prayer, especially, we can step up to the threshold of eternity. I like to pray the Jesus Prayer, so sometimes as I slowly and calmly begin the words again, I think to myself, With this prayer I may break through into eternity. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy.” Stretching out toward the Lord, I may break through into his eternal embrace. It’s all very calm and peaceful, being on the brink of eternity. And if I’m sleepy in prayer, it’s a good way to rouse myself a little. Just a “little while” and we will see the Lord face-to-face, heart-to-heart. With this next prayer, with this next act of love, I may break through into eternity.
Through faith, hope, and charity we already attain to God as he is in himself, but through the veil. Yet the reality is here, present already, even during the “little while” of this life. The Word of God tells us, We “were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the down-payment of our (heavenly) inheritance until we acquire possession of it, the praise of his glory.” So we read in Ephesians chapter 1.
The Holy Spirit is dwells in our hearts now as the down-payment of our heavenly inheritance. As we begin the days of Novena of Pentecost, we begin to cash in a little on this down-payment given to us. The Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts and is working out the fruits of Christ’s redemption in our souls. In the end it will seem like it was all just a “little while.” But now we have some work to do. We have some patient labor to endure. We have some ardent prayers to make in company with the Blessed Virgin Mary. We have some steady, daily diligence to work out as we beckon the Holy Spirit to come upon us and the Church with a new fullness. To help us in our daily faithfulness we remember it will be just a “little while” more. I leave you with some words of a poem you may know by St Therese. She says, “My life is but an instant. An hour that passes by. A single day that slips my grasp and quickly slides away. Oh, well you know, dear God, to love you before I die, I only have today.”