Fifth Sunday of Lent – April 2, 2006 – Blessed Sacrament
Easter is two weeks from today, and we are blessed with readings today that urge reflection on the mystery that will be celebrated that day and the on the life to which it gave rise, the life we are supposed to be living.
The two NT readings prepare us for the commemoration of the death and resurrection of Christ. In what some scholars think was an early Christian hymn, the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of the faithful obedience because of which he was rescued from his death and became by his resurrection our high priest, “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”
The passage from John’s Gospel reflects the growing tension as the great trial of Jesus–which is also the great trial of the world–approaches. “The hour has come,” Jesus says, “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.” The moment when Jesus will be glorified, in the vision of the Fourth Gospel, begins with his death. The moment he is judged and condemned is the moment when judgement is passed on the world. The buried seed breaks through the soil of the tomb and bears fruit in the eternal life which he shares with all who serve him. The very instrument of his suffering and death becomes the symbol that draws people to him: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.”
These two passages are examples of the way in which the early Christians made sense out of the climax of the life and ministry of Jesus. The encounter with the risen Christ and the experience of their new life in his Spirit transformed how they remembered and understood all that had gone before in the words of Jesus and his acts and especially in his passion and death. (It is a bit like how those of us old enough to remember them cannot think of the earlier lives of President Kennedy and of Martin Luther King without remembering how their lives ended.) The resurrection had revealed that even his suffering and death had purpose–not because they were themselves good, but because in the midst of their great and painful evil, he was faithful to his mission, he loved, and he forgave, and that transformation of the greatest evil into the greatest good is the whole mystery of our redemption.
With the passage from the prophet Jeremiah we are reminded of what is at the heart of the Christian life in us in whom the death and resurrection of Christ have borne fruit. It is the prophecy, in the midst of the distress of the exile of Israel, of a “new covenant” to replace the one shattered by the infidelity of God’s people. “I will place my law within them,” the word of the Lord is, “and I will write it upon their hearts.” The passage will be echoed not long after by Ezekiel: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances” (Ez 26: 26-27). The new covenant, instituted by Christ’s sacrifice, is an inward one. It has its laws, its requirements, yes, but these do not stand outside us, resented by us, perhaps obeyed only with stony reluctance. The people of the new covenant are given hearts of flesh, hearts that can feel, that can love, and it will be that love, the fruit of God’s Spirit within them, that becomes the law written on their hearts so that they freely and spontaneously love what God loves and so live as God would have them live.
Christianity begins with the encounter with Jesus Christ proclaimed to us in the gospel of his death and resurrection for the sake of our own salvation, for our liberation from sin, and for eternal life, a new life that begins even now with a conversion that involves a transformed heart, a heart of flesh. These are the marvelous dimensions of the mystery for whose celebration we are preparing ourselves throughout this Lent. Let us make an effort, these last two weeks, to ready ourselves, mind, heart and body, for a celebration worthy of the Lord and of his great blessings.