Homily for Sunday Lent 5B on Jn 12:20-30
by Dom Benedict Hardy OSB
Sir, we should like to see Jesus (Jn 12:21).
“Of course we don’t mean we want to see him merely as one of the crowd; merely externally. What we should like, with your help, is to contemplate him, as he truly is; to behold something of his inner beauty, his relationship with his Father, his divine dignity.
Sir, we understand that Jesus wants us to behold him as lifted up, exalted. So we should like you to help us understand something of what this means for us, and for the whole world. In our contemplative gaze, we should like to see how, from the Cross of Jesus, there flows life, and forgiveness, and reconciliation, and communion, and salvation, and holiness, and hope, and joy, and access to heaven, and the destruction of death, and of sin, and of hell. And seeing all that, we should like, one day, through it all, to see Jesus as he is lifted up also in his heavenly glory. We should like to see him there, so as to be with him there; so as to share his glory, his victory, his divine Sonship; so as to receive, eternally, all he came to give us, in the fullness of life and light and love.”
St. John wrote his Gospel to answer that holy request of the Greeks, which is also our own request. The Catholic Church also answers it. She does so in all her life, and in her preaching, and in her liturgy, particularly as it will unfold over the coming weeks. The Church holds Jesus up to us, inviting us to see him, and in seeing him to believe in him, to love him, to worship him. For the Church believes that what Jesus said is true: “whoever sees me, sees the Father; sees God (Jn 12:45; 14:9); and whoever believes in me, has eternal life in my name” (cf. 6:40; 20:31).
In holding up before us today the image of Jesus crucified, the Church offers us a very strong interpretation of his death. Just by way of comparison, one might think of soldiers who die fighting heroically in a noble cause; or perhaps of firemen who die in the attempt to rescue people trapped in a burning building. We venerate the memory of such people; we say they laid down their lives for others; we even say they offered the supreme sacrifice. And we are right to do so. But as a matter of fact, their death helped nobody. It was a sad accident that they would have avoided if they could. In itself, it achieved nothing. What mattered was their life, not their death.
With Jesus, it is different. Faith tells us that, far from being a sad accident of history, his death was the centre of all history. So we proclaim it, rejoice in it, hold it up before the world, look to it when we need consolation, or strength, or assurance; when we are in trouble; when we want to pray. Of course we know that Christ’s Cross cannot be separated from the Resurrection that followed. Nevertheless, Holy Scripture insists that Christ’s death, of itself, has power to save.
Not, of course, that his death lacked anything at all of natural human pain and sadness and loss. The words of Jesus as reported by St. John in today’s Gospel about his soul being troubled evoke the agony in the garden of Gethsemane as reported by the other Gospel writers. The passage we read today from the letter to the Hebrews says the same thing, even more strongly. Our translation though is too weak. The author of Hebrews tells us that the man Jesus offered up prayer and entreaty, “with tears”. We know that Jesus wept, with a depth and intensity of feeling we can only begin to guess, at the grave of Lazarus. We know too that in Gethsemane he experienced emotions of horror and desolation to an extreme degree. Our passage tells us that he prayed also, not just “aloud”, but “with a great cry”. The author of Hebrews here evokes all the humanly felt anguish of Jesus, which culminated in final great cry of the Cross (cf. Mark 15:36).
But for the author of Hebrews, Christ’s death was the opposite of merely passive, merely sad. On the contrary, it was the one, central, all sufficient, perfectly efficacious act of Christ our great High Priest. That Priestly act, that holy sacrifice achieved what the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament could never achieve. As we read today, it became “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”
The prophecy of Jeremiah we heard in our first reading today is quoted in its entirety by the author of Hebrews (8:8-12). Jeremiah had foretold the coming of a new and eternal covenant. What he foretold has come about, through Christ’s saving blood. We hear this affirmed at the consecration of the chalice in every Mass. By that blood of the covenant, the sins that separate us from God are washed away; a new communion with God is opened up; we are given direct access to God, in mutual knowledge and love and belonging (Jer 31:33-34).
In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks of his death as a grain of wheat which falls into the ground in order to yield a rich harvest. He refuses to avoid the hour of his death, declaring that it was for this very reason that he came. He speaks of his death giving glory to his Father, and also bringing glory for himself. And: when I am lifted up, he says, I shall draw all men, or all things, to myself. Lifted up, that is, between heaven and earth, as our Mediator and High Priest, as our Redeemer and Lord, Jesus stretches his hands out wide in an embrace of love and mercy which includes everyone without exception.
Sir, said the Greeks, we should like to see Jesus. In today’s Gospel, Jesus himself responds to that request. If you really want to see me, he says; if you really want the fullness of communion with me, then you must identify yourself with me, in my humility and obedience, in my self gift, in my death. You must be ready to die to self, to sin. You must reject all the values of this world, and of its Prince the devil. You must be ready to lose your life for my sake; you must serve me, as I have served you; you must love as you have been loved.
And so we come here now, to feed once again on Jesus, the wheat crushed for us. We do so in order that we may become what he is; and so that participating in his death, we may participate also in his life.