Back in the 1940s, a father found himself spending one too many Saturday afternoons at a California amusement park with his two young daughters. He’d spend a couple hours on a park bench, reading the paper or watching the skies for signs of rain, mostly feeling bored. And he would look around and see dozens of other parents doing the exact same thing, while their children rode the carousel. And he thought: wouldn’t it be great if there was a place where parents and children could go on the rides together, and everyone would have a good time?
That father was Walt Disney. And the empire he created from that idea now stretches around the world. By one estimate, more than 600 million people have visited the original park he created, Disneyland, and countless millions more have gone to Disney World in Florida.
Last week, my wife and I spent some time down there in Orlando, and you can see Walt Disney’s idea is still very much alive. It’s a place, first and foremost, for families. And it’s a place to watch families. Everybody does everything together. Fathers pushing strollers, mothers dragging toddlers, kids fussing over the heat or wanting a hot dog or crying over an outrageously expensive souvenir. Emotional meltdowns are not uncommon. It can be frantic and hectic and exhausting. One of the pictures I took outside of Pirates of the Caribbean showed a line of baby strollers stretching as far as the eye could see.
In Disney World, you see up close what it means to be a parent, but also what it means to be a child — to be overwhelmed by crowds and confusion, terrified by people with big rubber heads.
But for a child, there is also the security of realizing you aren’t alone. One of the most common refrains you hear, on the buses or the rides, “Please take small children by the hand.” There is the sure knowledge that there is always a hand to hold. Someone is looking out for you.
That, I think, is the kind of comfort that Jesus offers his followers in this Sunday’s gospel.
Jesus offered this promise – an assurance to all of us who might be afraid or overwhelmed by things we can’t understand.
“I will not leave you orphans,” he said. “I will come to you.”
He was speaking, of course, of the Holy Spirit, and Pentecost, the birthday of the Church that we will celebrate in two weeks.
But he was speaking, also, of the profound love he and His Father have for all of us. Love is at the heart of John’s gospel – written, the text tells us, by the “beloved disciple.” And it is a recurring refrain in this particular passage. The word “love” appears no less than four times in this brief paragraph. But it is that singular promise – “I will not leave you orphans” – that carries the greatest resonance, and reveals the kind of love Jesus is talking about.
It is love that looks after those who feel as small and defenseless as children. Those who are worried, or frightened.
It is love that teaches, encourages, comforts.
It is love that helps to make all of us who are children of God aware of wonder. And is a love that reassures us, no matter what, that there is someone there, in good times and in bad.
We are not alone. We are not orphans.
We are children of a loving God.
In a few moments, we will pray the great prayer of the church, the one that calls God “our Father,” and we will acknowledge that all of us are his children. And we will ask him to be with us, to give us our daily bread, to deliver us from evil. And in doing so, we will admit that, at one time or another, we need to be taken by the hand. We need Our Father. We need the God who came into the world in the Incarnation to remain with us.
And Jesus reassures us: He does.
“I will not leave you orphans,” Jesus said. The Spirit of Truth – the third person of the Trinity — remains our companion, our “advocate,” and our “counselor.” He is there for us.
Which means that the triune God isn’t a disinterested parent sitting on the sidelines, on a park bench, bored.
He is with us — encouraging us, inspiring us, teaching us. He is sharing this adventure of living with us.
We need only to trust in him, and to reach out for him.
He’ll gladly take us by the hand, and take us where He needs us to go.
In the roller coaster of life, He is right beside us.