Posted March 20, 2021
5th Sunday of Lent, Yr B
Unlike the other three Evangelists, St John gives us no account of the garden of Gethsemane, no account of Jesus asking the Father that the cup of suffering may pass him by. On the contrary, in St John’s Gospel Jesus expressly rejects the idea of making any such prayer to the Father. ‘What shall I say: Save me from this hour? But it was for this very reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name!’ Jesus takes a very positive view of his impending death. His dying will be like a grain of wheat that falls into the soil and, while seeming to disintegrate, in fact mysteriously germinates to yield a rich harvest. To see disintegration as germination, death as the way to abundant life, that is the constant message of the New Testament. It expresses in extreme form a theme that is already common in the Old Testament, that of divine creativity, of God’s ability to bring something wonderful out of apparently negative situations. The Psalmist expresses it vividly: ‘They go out, they go out, full of tears, carrying seed for the sowing; they come back, they come back, with songs of joy, carrying their sheaves.’ The Wisdom of Solomon similarly: ‘Their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction. Yet is their hope full of immortality.’
On this, the fifth Sunday of Lent, as we are about to enter into Passiontide, the Gospel (John 12: 20-33) invites us to carry this message of divine optimism in our hearts. It is not, needless to say, a facile optimism; not a flight from reality. If Jesus likens his death to a grain of wheat falling into the soil, he must have known that that image hides as much as it reveals. For no metaphor can mitigate the awfulness of Jesus’ death. And if we must use metaphors, we might just as well think of grain ground in the mill or olives pressed in the olive press: metaphors that do more justice to the painful reality of Jesus’ death than seed falling painlessly into the ground. St John indicates briefly that Jesus was aware of it: ‘Now my soul is agitated!’ What pain, what tumult, those words conceal we can only remotely imagine. And yet ‒ and yet ‒ Jesus is full of optimism, of certainty in a glorious outcome, of great joy at the end of it all. As the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it: ‘For the joy that was set before him, Jesus endured the cross, despising its shame, and is [now] seated at the right hand of the throne of God.’
All this teaches us what our mood and our thoughts should be as we accompany Jesus during Holy Week. On the one hand, yes, we accompany Jesus in his pain and humiliation. We do not lose sight of the horror of what he went through. On the other hand, our final focus is Easter and joy beyond imagination. Sorrow and joy: that is the human drama, and you cannot enter into it more deeply than by staying close to the heart of Jesus who embraced the sorrow ‘for the joy that was set before him’.
Our Holy Week must prepare us not only for this coming Easter but also for the rest of our lives, and for death, and beyond. Death awaits us all. When we experience it, metaphors may be hard to conjure up to lighten its burden. There may be something of the oil-press about it: who knows? But death is, in its ultimate meaning, positive. And to see death positively – I mean, not just intellectually but in our instinctive moods and deepest feelings ‒ that is central to our Christian faith. ‘Your sorrow will turn to joy.’ Do we believe that? Do we believe it in the face of whatever discouragement life can throw at us? Do we believe it with an indomitable, passionate certainty, like Jesus approaching his Passion?
Yes, we do; or yes we want to. And isn’t that why we accompany Jesus in this mystery of his Passover during Holy Week, in our hearts and in our liturgy? ‘Your sorrow will turn into joy!’
God creates Easter out of the bleak, bare wood of the cross. It is out of darkness that God creates light. In this period leading up to Holy Week and Easter, let nothing distract us from experiencing that truth, from sharing in the Lord’s Passion and opening our hearts to the Lord’s Easter.
Fr Tom Deidun