Mar 21, 2015

5th Sunday of Lent: A natural law

Jer 31: 31-34
Heb 5: 7-9
Jn 12: 20-33


Change is inevitable everywhere but we often resist change because we fear the unfamiliar, we dare not leave our comfort zone, or we see no reason to change.  Things are fine the way they are so why redesign the wheel? Yet certain changes bring something far more significant and beneficial.

The other evening around 9 pm, I turned on the television and channel surfed for a bit when I came across what proved to be a fascinating program.  It concerned the monarch butterfly.  The show was listed as an hour long and at first blush I wondered what you could say about a butterfly in an hour what you could not cover in about ten minutes.  However, these small, silent, fragile appearing creatures are a wonder of nature. Despite their delicate appearance, they prove to be tenacious. Only further proof of God’s mystery and beauty.

With amazement I learned these beautiful creatures migrate thousands of miles in the fall and spring. Hundreds of thousands of monarch butterflies will follow an airborne path, like geese, from south to north and north to south as they fly over 2,000 miles! Geese yes but butterflies? This astonishing fact is only possible when those fat and somewhat clumsy worm-like creatures called a caterpillar "die" to their previous form and rise as the delicate and beautiful new creation.  In this case, the death of one becomes the transformed new life of another.  It’s no wonder that one image of the resurrection of Jesus is often a butterfly. 

Our Gospel this Sunday prepares us for a new transformation in Christ; for death to bring life and despair to bring hope.  In the Gospel passage, placed by John towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, he reminds us that his mission and his person must undergo a new change in order to bring about a greater good – Jesus’ glory in death and resurrection will be the next stage of his mission, his Church, to the greater world beyond Jerusalem. It is clear in John that Jesus is in control of this entire event. That he and his Father are one in mind and purpose. As we approach Holy Week and Easter, we are now given a reminder of the transformative power of Jesus’ death.  Ultimately, what has been accomplished by it – a new Covenant in his blood.  That covenant is spoken of centuries before Christ appears.

Our first reading is taken from the prophet Jeremiah who preached to the ancient Jews during a very turbulent time.  The Babylonians are a direct threat to Jerusalem and in fact eventually conquered by destroying the holy city then carried off many to Babylon.  What has God allowed to happen to his chosen people and why?

Jeremiah is now in Babylon where he prophesies to the Jews not only that God chastised them for their unfaithfulness to the covenant established earlier through idolatry and social injustice but that now at a future time God will establish a new covenant with his people.  A new covenant, not an agreement, that will be an intimate sharing of love and life based in the law not written upon stones or in books but upon their own hearts: “I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jer 31: 31). This permanent bond will form a new covenant not of a static obedience to the law but of unconditional love made concrete through forgiveness and reconciliation.  Our response to that outreach from God is the way in which the relationship is deepened and fulfilled.

If we place this reading aside the Gospel, we hear that Jesus himself speak of this new beginning: “Unless a grain or wheat falls to the ground and dies, a it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit... and when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” (Jn 12: 20 ff).

It is all about a new relationship between God and humanity that goes far beyond the ancient covenants of old.  It is a new covenant that is living and personal not just for a few but for all humanity which is the new “chosen people” of God.  And similar to the previous covenants sealed by blood and sacrifice, this new covenant will be sealed once for all through a more deeply personal sacrifice and shedding of blood.

If we recall the moment when Jesus gathered with his disciples in that upper room the night before he died when he took a cup of wine and a piece of unleavened matzo.  His words to those gathered we hear in every Mass:  This is my Body, which will be given up for you . . . this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out . . .”  Jesus himself will offer his body and blood as the ultimate and final sign of this new covenant offered by God through his unconditional love. How we then live out that love in our sacrificial service of love towards one another is the way in which that covenant is made clear and moves forward – the grain of wheat must die to produce much fruit.

In just two weeks we’ll hear stories of the risen Lord that the Gospel writers struggle to describe their experience as amazing, awestruck, trembling, fearful, joyful.  Once the grain of wheat died, Jesus himself, great fruit was produced by the Lord of glory in his Church and the Spirit’s power that sent that Gospel message of the new Covenant of unconditional love to humanity.  Gathered for the Eucharist as we do so often in the remembrance of that eternal seal which transformed our broken relationship with God and now offers us the proposition of a new way that is forever renewed through love, mercy, forgiveness.


By your help, we beseech you, Lord our God,
may we walk eagerly in that same charity
with which, out of love for the world, 
your Son handed himself over to death. 

(Roman Missal - Collect for Sunday)