The Gentiles Ask to See Jesus, Tissot c.1890, Brooklyn Museum, New York City, USA.
[Jesus said] Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. John, 12:25.
Words and phrases highlighted in red are links to supporting materials.
This is, at the very least, a curious gospel. Firstly, the gospel begins with “Some Greeks who had come to worship at the Passover feast….” which sets the scene a little. It means it is near the time of Jesus’ Passion. Passover was and is a major Jewish holy celebration, commemorating the passage of the Jews out of their slavery in Egypt to their freedom in the Promised Land. But the word “Greeks” which you see in today’s gospel, is code for pagans; these people were not Jewish. Perhaps they were in the process of converting, or were tourists. It is not clear. But it seems they had heard of Jesus and wanted to find out all about him. Except we do not know if they did! They are not mentioned again in the gospel, so it is anybody’s guess what happened to them. Jesus, on the other hand, took this enquiry to launch into a major statement about what was about to happen, and what it must mean to those he would leave behind. Hence the quotation above, a challenging statement indeed. It is compounded by the famous statement “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat…” also in today’s gospel. So we have words like “dies” and “hates” and “loses” in the gospel today, all of which have a negative connotation, not usually associated with the Lord of Life and Peace. Except, of course, his Passion was near, when all those words will be fully witnessed. He will die, surrounded by hatred as he had apparently lost everyone and everything he came to save. Not only that, but there is heavenly confirmation with the voice of God announcing that God will be glorified in complete contrast to what was to happen.
God the Father with Right Hand Raised in Blessing, dai Libri, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA.
Then there is the word “covenant”, highlighted strongly in the first reading from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah. The prophet says there will be a new covenant, in contrast to the one made at Mount Sinai. This is the only time in the Old Testament that the words “new covenant” are mentioned. From the Christian point of view, of course, this new covenant is about to be made at the Last Supper and confirmed by the Lord’s passion and death, immortalized by the Resurrection. And this new covenant will be written, not on stone tablets, but in the heart. And recall that the word covenant means, at root, a “coming together” of two parties in mutual agreement. There is no coercing or oppression here of any kind; each partner agrees in complete freedom to what is being considered. All this is recalled at each Mass: “…the blood of the new and eternal covenant…” to which each of us freely and willingly agrees. And then, in the second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, we see the whole meaning of the Lord’s agony. He stood by his message in complete obedience to God’s will for him, suffered the devastating consequences, and as it says, “was made perfect, [and] he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” So today’s readings encapsulate the whole Easter event for Christians. Here was a man who received his mission from the hand of God, lived it out as fully as he was able, stood by it despite every temptation to deny it, and was put to death as a consequence. And we, his followers, have his message carved in our hearts. That means our belief, our life, is formed not from external compliance and force, but from love, obedience freely given, knowledge of God, all voluntary. That is the source of pure Christian joy and strength. It is the true covenant each of us makes with God, freely and happily no matter what might happen externally. And that, I think, is the message of this Fifth Sunday of Lent: Is that the true reality of my – your – faith? Are there any impediments to that free submission to God’s will within any of us, which should be the source of our contentment and strength? If so, they are the selfish elements we might love in this life but which we must hate in order to prepare for the eternal life offered by God. And Lent is the time for each of us to take that seriously and take any action needed, and do it now.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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