21 March 2021
As we continue our Lenten journey with Christ, the human face of God, today’s readings remind us of the painful struggle Jesus had to endure to be faithful to his vocation as the suffering Messiah. As we saw on the first Sunday in Lent in the story of the temptations, Jesus had to decide how he would fulfil his messianic vocation. From the beginning of his ministry, he chose the path of suffering love, the way of the Cross. Both the second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews and the Gospel give us an insight into what this would cost him.
The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that, ‘Although he was Son, he learnt to obey through suffering’ (Hebrews 5:8). The gospel reveals his agonizing struggle within himself as the time of passion and death draws near: ‘Now the hour has come… now my soul is troubled’ (Jn 12: 27). We have here an echo of Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane where he seemed appalled at the prospect of his forthcoming death and prays to his Father: ‘Take this cup away from me’ (Mk 14: 36). John’s account of this harrowing moment is less stark: ‘What shall I say: Father, save me from this hour? (Jn 12:27). Jesus’ fear reveals his humanity. Fear is natural. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn states: ‘A person without fear is no hero; the person who overcomes fear is. Jesus’ trepidation is followed immediately by his humble submission to the Father’s will: ‘It was for this very reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name! (Jn 12: 27).
Jesus knows that his death is necessary and he embraces it freely. It is his supreme witness to his Father’s love, the climax of his life-giving mission: ‘Unless the grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit’ (Jn 12:24). This declaration may, at first sight, seem to conflict with Jesus’ earlier affirmation of the life-giving nature of his mission: ‘I have come have come so that they may have life and have it to the full’ (Jn 10:10). It is indeed a paradox and a deeply counter-cultural one. But it expresses a profound truth at the heart of life and a key principle of all Christian discipleship. To try to avoid death, including the ‘little deaths’ that are part of everyday living, is to stunt our growth in love and suffocate the Spirit. From the moment we are born until the moment of our physical death, our lives are marked by a series of ‘deaths’, beginning with our departure from the comfort and warmth of our mother’s womb. Our lives are marked by a whole series of ‘deaths’, losses and renunciations – in our relationships, in our career goals, in our hopes and expectations. It is from these ‘little deaths’ that we learn to change, to adapt and make new gains.
Recently, I was listening to a BBC programme on old age and heard an 82 years old Asian woman being interviewed. She was asked the question: What in your opinion are the most important ingredients for a happy life?. Two things she said struck me: ‘Let go of being needful of the approval of others’ and ‘Don’t be afraid of death. If you’re afraid of death you will never live.
Ilia Delio says that every time we try to hold on too tightly to our comfort and security, every time we try to control our lives as we would like them to be, we reject the movement of God’s Spirit in our lives. ‘To say “I will not die” is to die. To be willing to die by surrendering to the freedom of the Spirit is to live forever’ (Making all Things New, p. 82).
Jesus’ challenge to us is clear. It is to die to self and imitate his own life-giving service: ‘The one who serves me must follow me. Wherever I am, my servant will be there too (Jn 12: 27).
At this time, as the Covid pandemic continues to dominate our lives, we are all going through a frightening experience of loss – loss of freedom, loss of friends, loss of control. There will be no return to the way things were before the pandemic.
But, as Pope Francis reminds in his most recent book, Let us dream, there is a way out of this ‘labyrinth’. It is the way of de-centering and transcending. It is the way of the Cross. ‘We have to leave behind the “selfie” culture and look at the eyes, faces, hands and needs of those around us; and in this way find, too, our own faces, our own hands, full of possibilities’ (Let us Dream, p. 137).
Fr Michael McCabe SMA, Cork