Fifth Sunday of Lent (B)
(Jeremiah, 31:31-34; Hebrews, 5:7-9; John 12:20-30)
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, when relations between Israel and the Lord her God had, so to speak, broken down, with the result that the Lord determined to punish Israel’s faithlessness by sending her children to exile in Babylon, the Lord had, nevertheless, taken care to assure Jeremiah, and through him the whole people of Israel that, despite the adversity and fear to be endured, there would be a future to look forward to, to hope for, after the years of exile and apparent abandonment. He spoke of a new covenant -- the covenant to be ultimately ratified in the blood of Jesus -- saying:
“This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” says the LORD: “I will place My law within them and write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”
Israel had not been faithful to the covenant God had made with her through Moses; she had sought to behave as did the nations around her, not truly wanting to be a chosen people, holy as her God was holy. The pride and pomp, the pleasures and plenty, of the surrounding nations having seduced her, she wanted to enjoy such things with them.
After around seventy years of exile in Babylon, on returning to Judea, thanks to Cyrus king of the Medes and Persians who had conquered Babylon, the Jews recognized their ancestors’ unfaithfulness to the Law of Moses and did try to reverse that infidelity by close, indeed minute, study of the Law and its implications, together with a scrupulous, and at times excessively literal, observance of all its prescriptions. This resulted in them proudly putting scholarly knowledge and extravagant observance of the Law first and foremost, while gradually losing touch with humble humanity and the spirit of the Law. Their attention came to centre on the people’s awareness of their own knowledge and practice of all the Law’s requirements, of their exact conformity with each and every prescription whether written by God or deduced and handed down by themselves. They had the Law, as it were, on the operating table, and like supremely skilful surgeons or morticians, they cut and dissected each and every individual passage and phrase of the Law for classification and documentation; but all the while, the over-riding meaning and significance of the Law was becoming more and more unrecognisable to them, for, having cut the body up into every conceivable constituent part, they were increasingly unable to put it together again as a vital and recognizable whole. Instead of themselves being formed by the Law they were re-fashioning the Law according to their own ideology and preferences.
When the Lord spoke to Jeremiah of a new covenant, He had, most critically, said:
I will place MY law within them and write it upon their hearts.
God would Himself place His new Law of the new Covenant into man’s mind and heart to guide and inspire him: man would not be allowed to take charge of it in order to make it fit into his merely human categories; on the contrary, this new Law from within -- gifted us by the Father, through His Son, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit -- would raise man up, above and beyond himself, to the level of a true child of God, and living member of the Body of Christ.
Surely this historical precedent is reflected in Our Lord’s own fundamental choice of Church before book: He could have written, drafted, or caused to be suitably prepared, an authoritative Personal account of His own life’s work, teaching, and intentions; but He made no such attempt. Instead He chose to found a Church based upon the witness and testimony of apostles chosen by Himself after prayer to His Father, then founded and established for all time by the outpouring of His Spirit. This choice ultimately determined and signifies the central importance of faith in the Christian and Catholic way of life, as the supreme means of man’s total gift of self to God: in accordance with the witness and teaching of a humanly visible Church -- the Body of Christ – and on the basis of faith in the supernatural promise and enduring presence of Jesus to His Church, with the supreme power and sublime wisdom of the Holy Spirit ever at work in her. Catholic, Christian faith is not commitment to any independent understanding of chosen books, no matter how holy, of themselves, such books might be, no matter how authoritative that understanding considered by human standards.
Later on we were told of a voice coming from heaven in response to Jesus’ prayer, a voice some bystanders thought was that of an angel speaking with Jesus, while others considered it to have been nothing more than a peal of thunder. Jesus knew it to be the voice of His Father, but He made it expressly clear that:
This voice did not come for My sake but for yours.
For Jesus was always seeking to give His utmost for the greater glory of His Father; and loving Him in such a way -- utterly and absolutely -- He denied Himself, in the little things as well as the great ones, with a total and selfless commitment that would remain the most sublime model for His future disciples’ life of faith.
And that choice and appreciation is mirrored in today’s Gospel reading by a most striking fact, for in the Gospel reading today we are told:
There were some Greeks among those who had come up to worship at the feast; they came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.
Thereupon, however, we are told nothing whatsoever about any Personal contact between Jesus and these ‘first-fruits’ of the Gentiles! How strange! Why?
Jesus saw the saving presence of His Father’s Law at work in the hearts and minds of these Greek pilgrims and from this He recognized that His own work was nearly complete: His saving Death, poured-out Blood, and Resurrection alone could seal and ratify His new Covenant and enable His Church to take up and continue His saving work on earth, beginning with these Greeks and continuing throughout the rest of time among all nations and peoples of the world. Now, with complete selflessness and total trust in His Father, He ‘handed over the reins’ of His life’s work and imminent Death to the Church of His choice saying:
The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to Myself.
What significance does all this have for us, here and now? Much indeed; because in today’s readings we have been given an outline of our human situation in the world today.
Although Christianity is spread world-wide today, many, many Christians behave like the Israelites of old: they do not want to belong to a chosen people called to be holy because their God is holy; they want to be free, they say, to taste whatever the world has to offer; they do not want a law which would forewarn them let alone forbid such unacceptable practices. The irony of their situation, however, is that though they might claim, at times vociferously, to be advocates of freedom, they gladly abdicate their freedom of spirit by enslaving themselves -- becoming addicts indeed -- to pleasure, money, and pride.
There are others who like the Jews, apparently zealous, try to manipulate the Gospel and indeed God Himself, rather than allow themselves to be formed by the Spirit according to the way of the Good News of Jesus. They seize upon some particular aspect or teaching of that Good News and then try make their choice the whole of the Gospel message: they rejoice in their version of the Good News but have no time or desire to let their minds be illuminated and guided by the whole Gospel. The Gospel, some say, is Good news, which, for them, means that Christians should be make themselves seen to be continually rejoicing with clap-happy attitudes which worldly people can recognize. Others will seize upon the discipline of the Gospel and forget compassion, sympathy and understanding for others: strong in their own observance of that discipline they freely give way to criticism of the failings and weaknesses they think they observe in others. Even more frequently encountered today is the idea that the Gospel is compassion and love to such an extent that the Gospel has no commands and no sanctions, nor does the majesty of God demand any soul-sanctifying reverence or humility from us.
People of God, the Father has drawn us to Jesus in Mother Church, and He has given us His Holy Spirit, not simply to save us from sin and death, but to save us from sin and death by reforming us for heavenly life. That formation extends to and involves the whole of our being: the way we think, the way we love; the hopes we cherish for the future and the ideals we try to realize here and now; the joys we gratefully embrace and the sorrows we patiently accept; the service we seek to give and the selfishness we try to reject. Because we are being formed for a life we cannot yet see, a heavenly life, therefore we cannot prescribe for ourselves; on the contrary, we have to pray the Holy Spirit that He will guide us in the way of Jesus; and, having prayed thus, we must have the humility to accept life as coming from Him and the patience to respond with love for Him in whatever situation we find ourselves involved:
Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves Me must follow Me; and where I am, there also will My servant be. The Father will honour whoever serves Me.
Perhaps the greatest, most difficult and yet most beautiful lesson we have to learn from the Gospel is love of the Cross, because the Cross seems to contradict all that is natural within us. We have to be willing, therefore, to accept, with Jesus, that we are here for a purpose which is not of our own choosing, it is God’s purpose and plan for each and every one of us individually, in Jesus: one which, through the Cross, we seek to embrace personally and fulfil sincerely throughout our life; one that is already -- here on earth -- our greatest privilege, one that will be -- in heaven -- our supreme glory:
“I am troubled now. Yet what should I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it and will glorify it again.”
In order that God’s name be glorified and His purpose be fulfilled in and through us, we have to be totally informed by the presence, and reformed by the working, of His Holy Spirit in our lives. Let us therefore beseech the Spirit to form us in Jesus for the Father, to the extent that we may be brought to cry out with Him:
Father, glorify you name
and hopefully be privileged to share, in Him, that heavenly response:
I have glorified it (in my Son), and I will glorify it again (in you, my child).