t feels good when someone is there to prepare the way for a new experience. We don’t feel so helpless in the face of the unfamiliar. We can ask someone the way and know that they will guide us. Similarly, Jesus wants to assure His disciples that they will be provided for with guidance while He’s away, that their need for His company will be supplied through the presence of the Holy Spirit and the promise of a permanent home with Him. And that in His going, He is keeping them uppermost in His mind because the purpose of His leaving is to make their lives infinitely better.
Preparing a Place: Providing Comfort
Often, there are feelings of apprehension connected to major life changes. The possible risks involved keep us awake at night, and we wring our hands over the possibilities of failure or even danger. We lament losing control over our once comfortable and predictable lives in order to launch out into the relative unknown. Even when the unknown holds the promise of greater gain, humans tend to cringe at the very thought of a “new life.” New ways of doing and living and thinking can be very frightening.
When Jesus told His disciples that He was leaving to assure them an eternal home, He was addressing this most human of frailties: fear in the face of the unknown. The promise of a stable residence—forever—was meant to allay the uncertainties related to His leaving them spiritually “homeless.”
Fray Luis de León, a sixteenth-century Spanish poet and theologian, once wrote a poem capturing the trepidation in the hearts of Jesus’ disciples as they watched Him go up into heaven (Acts 1:9, 10). We often read the ascension of Christ into heaven as a time of triumph, and, in many senses, it was. But if we look at it from the disciples’ point of view, we can imagine their sense of fear and loss as they saw themselves left behind, like orphans.
And now, Holy Shepherd, do You leave
Your flock in this deep, dark vale
Of loneliness and tears;
And, breaking through
The taintless air, rise to Your
Those who once were blessed,
Now sad and afflicted,
Nurtured at Your breast,
Where shall they now turn?
Jesus’ words of assurance “I am going there to prepare a place for you” acknowledge the conflicted feelings that undoubtedly overwhelmed the watching disciples. What would they do now? How could they go on without their Master?
Oh, cloud, envious
Even of this brief joy. Why your
Why do you hurry off so?
What riches you bear away,
and, alas, how poor and blind
you leave us! (my translation)
The assurance that Jesus was leaving with a purpose that would ultimately bless them must have been little consolation for those who had learned to depend on their Lord for their newfound faith. Now they were being asked to wait for His return: “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Jesus needed to explain to His beloved followers why He had to leave: If He didn’t, the Comforter couldn’t come; if He didn’t, He could not prepare a place for them to live forever with Him. What their eyes were seeing and the separation they were experiencing could only fill them with fearful foreboding. But the eyes of faith would help them “see” spiritually beyond the pain of loss to appropriate the promise.
Preparing a Place: A Sense of Belonging
There is something powerful about belonging to a place. Before He leaves, Jesus assures the disciples that they belong to a unique place. He wants to assure His disciples that His leaving is not abandonment, but a chance to open new doors of spiritual opportunity for them. This move, says Jesus, will be a “step up” and a “step forward” to the pinnacle of human existence: eternity in the presence of their Lord and Savior. Poverty, illness, loss of employment, death—all of these can steal our sense of security and belonging. No matter whether we live in a lowly shack or in a dream house, the uncertainties of life predict our never really having a permanent home here. The structure may pass on from generation to generation, but someday, you will move out and never come back.
Jesus Christ is called the Author of our faith (Heb. 2:10; 12:2) because He was unafraid to step up and forward on your behalf and mine to make our lives even richer and give us a place we can call our own eternally. We thought we were happy; we thought we were satisfied; we thought we belonged, but Jesus came to this earth to show us the true source of all happiness, satisfaction, and wealth.
Preparing a Place: Faith and Suffering
What I find interesting about faith is its inevitable connection with suffering. As unpleasant as it may be, suffering has the capacity to strengthen our faith like nothing else. Here is yet another insight into the wisdom of God in allowing His Son to suffer—and His Son’s wisdom in letting those who had seen and touched Him watch Him go away. Sometimes absence can harden the heart, but, if love is permitted to have its way, distance and time and the pain they may inflict can only make us long ever more for the promise to be fulfilled.
Jesus, we’re told, was made “perfect through suffering” (Heb. 2:10). Can any of our sufferings be compared to those Jesus endured in order to prepare that “place” for us? He drank the cup of suffering to the bitter dregs; He knew suffering such as we will never be called on to endure because it was God suffering, not a mere human. The Greek word here translated “perfect” derives from the word teleios, which means complete or fully mature. Jesus’ sufferings completed and “matured” Him in His understanding of the cost of giving His creatures a free will and the choice to sin.
His life on earth was a hands-on “education” in sin, even as He resisted every temptation to engage in it. His enemies made Him suffer; the cruelty and man’s inhumanity to man that surrounded Him daily made Him suffer. Even His friends, His own disciples, made Him suffer with their spiritual obtuseness. It was that suffering during His life and His death that allowed Him to become the perfect sacrifice to meet the demands of the broken Law. And it will be our own suffering, taken in the right spirit, that will create an appropriate longing for that home with our Savior, one from which we will never have to leave.
Questions for Reflection
1. What is the connection between suffering and faith?
2. In what way or ways do we “collaborate” with God as He prepares a place for us?
Our Savior, the Author of our faith, knows from the inside out what we must deal with, and He knows what reward He has in store for us. Eye has not seen nor ear heard the things God has in store for those who love Him (1 Cor. 2:9). The faithful of old and of the present refuse to believe what their eyes and ears testify and cling to those things “unseen” where their hope lies. Their faith gives shape and breathes life into the promises of God, promises that, for them, are as good as fulfilled.
As we live the Christian life in hope and faith, we too can put contours on our sufferings through the eyes of faith.
Preparing a Place: Hope and Waiting
Then, there is hope. Hoping looks longingly into the future when things will get better. It waits patiently and eagerly for the fulfillment of its expectations. Hope is what keeps us going. “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Cor. 15:19). Hope transports us beyond this earthly life with all its troubles to where God is preparing a “place” for us.
But more than a geographical place, the “place” that Jesus promises is where He is. That place will be filled with rapturous, breathtaking beauty not only because of its location but because of who is there.
A little city girl was in the country for the first time looking at the night sky. “Oh, Mother,” she exclaimed, “if heaven is so beautiful on the wrong side, what must it be like on the right side!”
While we live on the “wrong side” of heaven, we can still be filled with hope and faith as we await the actual fulfillment of both.
Preparing a Place: A Spiritual Collaboration
“I go,” said Jesus. But it was not to leave us destitute. Far from it! Rather it was to teach us that if we are willing to place Jesus at the center of our lives, we will begin to live in that “place” right here and now. In fact, God cannot prepare that place without our cooperation. It is a collaborative effort that begins now in our hearts and minds and becomes manifest in our homes, our offices, and our churches.
That is why I can begin to enjoy the comforts (the Holy Spirit) and conveniences (access to spiritual strength through prayer), the beautiful gardens (cultivating love in my life) and surroundings (cultivating joy and the peace that passes understanding) of that promised place when I let Jesus rule in my life. The paradox of our Lord’s leaving yet staying is what guides us through and comforts us in our sufferings, strengthens our hope and our faith, gives our lives meaning, and settles us into a place, here and now, that will be our home throughout eternity.
Lourdes E. Morales-Gudmundsson is professor of Spanish language and literature at La Sierra University in California.