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In a sense, this Fifth Sunday of Lent is a synthesis of all the motifs we will see during the celebrations of Holy Week. The text from Jeremiah sums up the results of the New Covenant signed by the blood of the new and final Paschal Lamb. Jesus’ death and resurrection will transform those who believe in him into new creatures in whom the Law will be made alive and expressed through the one commandment from Jesus: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). This commandment is not written on tablets but on the hearts of believers.
As for the reading from Hebrews, we should perhaps read it not in the particular setting of Jesus’ passion, when he felt in a most dire way the cost of obedience to the Father’s will (something reflected by the Synoptics in their description of Jesus’ prayer in the Mount of Olives), but as if it were an image of his own entire life. From the very beginning of his ministry, even from his first encounter with Satan, he felt that to “become the source of salvation for all who [would] obey him” (5:9) he had to learn to obey.
But it is in John’s fragment that we find all the features and dimensions expressed in the liturgy of Holy Week. In the last verse before today’s passage, just after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the Pharisees declared: “Look, the whole world has gone after him” (12:19). And it seems so, at least symbolically, for some Greeks want “to see Jesus,” such as the first disciples had done before (1:35-51). Symbolically, in the same way as Andrew and Phillip introduced Jesus to Simon and Nathanael, two Jews, they now bring the Greeks, the Gentiles, to Jesus. From this moment on, Jesus begins to announce and explain the meaning of all that is going to happen.
First, the meaning of discipleship as an act of following in his footsteps.
Just as Jesus is going to be glorified through his death, so must the disciples understand their lives in this world as denying themselves in order to bear fruit, receive eternal life, and thus share in Jesus’ own glory with him (12:24-26). These words recall: “They saw where he was staying and stayed with him that day” (1:39).
Then, we read of the same feelings of anguish as described by the Synoptics (Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46), but with a radical difference. Although Jesus is “troubled” (12:27), there is no point in asking to be saved from that “hour” or from “the cup” he has to drink, because that was the purpose of his coming. His acceptance of the Father’s plans makes him announce his glorification, something the people must hear and understand (12:30).
The last detail is both an announcement and an interpretation. The plan of salvation is about to be fulfilled, but the way in which it will be accomplished, as usual, does not “match” our human standards. Jesus’ glorification, his being “lifted,” “raised,” is linked to two contrasting realities: being lifted onto the cross and being raised from the dead. In fact, such as we saw last week, the bronze snake was the symbol of the cross, an instrument and sign of malediction, but it is also the source of salvation for humankind, “drawn” to Jesus, and the means by which the prince of this world will be “driven out.” Unfortunately, the fragment selected for the lectionary leaves out an image that is familiar and enlightens the entire passage. Jesus calls for a response from those who hear him: to walk in his light in order to “become children of the light” (12:36). It is through faith in him that we can be “drawn to him.”
As we prepare for the celebrations of Holy Week, today’s texts can help us survey our attitudes on several subjects that transcend the liturgical limits and go to the very roots of our Christian faith. The Greeks “would like to see” Jesus. Whether they were moved by curiosity or a real desire to listen to his words and become his disciples, we do not know. But, we must ask ourselves if we desire to see him and come to know him better, or if we take for granted his presence and think we know everything about him. Is Jesus’ law, his one commandment, “written upon our hearts,” or do we still rely on precepts and norms that are alien to the way he thought and felt? Do we put aside our commitment to the Gospel when our obedience may imply suffering or trouble? Do we allow Jesus on the cross to “draw us to him” and share in his death and glory? Do we accept that following him may mean dying like a grain of wheat in order to bear the fruits of the Kingdom?
Pray for those Christians in the Middle East and other parts of the world, for whom “falling to the ground and dying” is not a mere image but the dire reality of being persecuted because of their faith: that they may experience Jesus’ presence close to them, and that the Christian community may show effective solidarity to help them overcome their hard conditions.
Let us pray for ourselves: that we may find in the Eucharistic bread the strength and courage to follow Jesus in spite of the difficulties and risks involved in our mission as witnesses to the truth.
John, as we saw, mentions Jesus’ anguish as he foresees his passion and death, but from his vision of Jesus as the Word incarnate, he cannot mention his suffering openly. The Synoptics, on the contrary, have a more down-to-earth image of Jesus, so they can reflect his actual human fear and struggle in his acceptance of the Father’s will. Read again our fragment from Hebrews and compare it with the Synoptic accounts of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46). That will provide you with an idea of Jesus’ feelings and prepare you for Holy Week.
Reflections written by Rev. Fr. Mariano Perrón
– Verses 20 to 22 show us some Greeks “wanting to see Jesus”. It is of course interesting in that they made their way to Jesus through a disciple who had a Greek name. He was Andrew who was from Bethsaida and had come with Jesus all the way from Galilee.
This quickly became one of the main principles of evangelisation – people must be approached by those like them. The principle was followed in the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of St Paul. St Paul himself was an exception in that he was a Jew, but his name Paul fitted more specially the gospel of the Greeks.
– Verse 23 shows us that Jesus is fully conscious that at this stage of his life “his hour has come“. He knows he is in a crisis moment. This is something that happens from time to time in the life of every person. It usually happens to us just once or twice; it is a time when we feel at the bottom of the pile. Anything can happen to us; we have all gone through this and must measure our responses by what we know was in the mind of Jesus as he went through it.
– Verse 24 is a very brief parable. We learn first to feel the pain of “it falls on the ground“. We can well imagine what this involves. The seed has fallen on the ground and it is just there. It waits to see if it will lie there unused and helpless; here and now it will be open to every eventuality. Then we enter into the second moment of “it dies.” The “dying” reminds us that we are actually in a position of being closed to new life. We are not sure whether we will lie there or whether this death will lead to new life. This “hour” has two possible outcomes:
– Verse 25 is the same teaching but the contrast is now between
– Verse 26 makes the teaching personal. “If a man serves me, he must follow me, wherever I am, my servant will be there too.” Jesus himself has made this journey of faith. He allowed himself to fall on the ground in uncertainty and then to die. He was totally unsure of what would happen afterward, whether he would bring life to others or not, but he went ahead and accepted it. “If anyone serves me, my Father will honour him“. Jesus broadens the picture. His “father” here includes all those who give this person the honour he or she deserve.
– As a follow up, verse 27 invites us to accompany Jesus on his journey. This is John’s account of what the Synoptic gospels relate as Jesus’ well known “agony in the garden”. His first petition is that the Father would change his mind: “Father save me from this hour; my soul is sorrowful even unto death”. This then becomes the second petition, “nevertheless let it be as you, not I would have it”. It finally ends with “let your will be done”.
From Jesus’ words, we can then gauge the movement from Jesus’ first petition, “save me from this hour“, to the more glorious one of “Father, glorify your name”. This is the first petition of the Our Father and in biblical language means the same as the second and third petitions – “your kingdom come” and “your will be done”.
– In verses 28 to 30 Jesus says, quite simply, that the voice from heaven, “I have glorified it and will glorify it again” arose not for the sake of Jesus himself but in order to please the onlookers – “It was not for my sake but for yours.” The onlookers will then be able to see for themselves that everything that happened to Jesus came from their own experience of suffering.
– Verses 31 and 32 express the attitude of Jesus as he faces his hour, “Now sentence has been passed on this world and the prince of this world is to be overthrown”. In Jesus’ own self-effacing he shows no self-pity and no bitterness. He is sad but totally confident that God’s work will be done through him, “when I am lifted from the earth I shall draw all people to myself”.
Lectio Divina with the Sunday Gospels
The text from Jeremiah that we heard in the first reading of this Mass is one of the most beautiful text from the Bible on conversion. First, it describes conversion as a gift from God; but most of all, it describes it not as a simple change of behavior, not as the replacement of an “ego” by another “ego”, but as a profound change of the heart. And by profound change of the heart we must understand not simply a purer heart, a heart that desires nicer things, but a heart that has become so impregnated by the Spirit of God that it spontaneously desires what God desires. “I will place my law within [you], says the Lord, and write it upon your hearts… No longer will you need to teach your friends and kinsmen how to know the Lord, All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the Lord.” This is radical obedience to God. Radical, because it is obedience through the root (radix) of our being.
But how does God realize in us that change? How does he teach us his law? How do we learn obedience? There is no other way than the way that Christ himself has taught us; the way that he himself used.
The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us of his prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to God, and then adds: “he learned obedience through suffering”… Have not all made the experience that the most important things in life are learned through suffering, and could never be learned through a whole life of study. But then the text adds that He became a source of salvation for all who obey him. So we are called to obey him just as he has obeyed the Father, in the same radical way, through the same radical surrender of our whole existence. But how can we learn obedience, if not through suffering, as he did?
This is why he tells us, in the Gospel: “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit. The man who loves his life loses it, while the man who hates his life in this world preserves it to life eternal.”
What it is the meaning of that riddle that we find quite a few times in the Gospel (in slightly different forms): “the one who saves his life will lose it; the man who loses his life will save it”? To save one’s life means to hold onto it, to love it and be attached to it and therefore to fear death. To lose one’s life is to let go of it, to be detached from it and therefore to be willing to die. The paradox is that the person who fears death is already dead, whereas the one who has ceased to fear death has at that moment begun to live.
But why must someone be ready to suffer and to die? ‑‑ Does that make sense at all? The key word here is “compassion” (= suffering with). The one thing that Jesus was determined to destroy was suffering and death: the suffering of the poor and the oppressed, the suffering of the sick, the suffering and death of all the victims of injustice first of all. But the only way to destroy suffering is to give up all worldly values and suffer the consequences.
Only the willingness to suffer can conquer suffering in the world. Compassion destroys suffering by suffering with and on behalf of those who suffer. A sympathy with the poor that is unwilling to share their sufferings would be a useless emotion. One cannot share the blessings of the poor unless one is willing to share their sufferings. The same thing can be said of death.
This is what Jesus has done for us. This is what we will commemorate in our celebrations of the next few weeks. Let us find in today’s Eucharist the strength to follow in his steps.