Fifth Sunday of Lent
March 18, 2018
First Reading: Ezekiel 37: 12-14
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 130: 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
Second Reading: Romans 8: 8-11
Gospel: John 11: 1-45
First Reading: Jeremiah 31: 31-34
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 51: 3-4, 12-13, 14-15
Second Reading: Hebrews 5: 7-9
Gospel: John 12: 20-33
The season of Lent is drawing to its conclusion. The hour has come. We may think that the hour referred to in John’s gospel is the hour of Jesus’ death. It is, but the author gives that dreaded hour a most unexpected meaning. He claims that the hour of Jesus’ death is really the hour of his glorification. He further insists that Jesus is glorified, not as a martyr, but as the source of new life for us. We hear this so often that we might fail to realize the paradox here: Jesus’ death brings us new life. What does this mean? The readings for today provide us with an answer.
Through the prophet Jeremiah, God announces a new covenant. This does not mean that the other covenants have been abrogated. We are still creatures of the earth (Genesis 9), who cling to God’s promises (Genesis 22), who are subject to God’s law (Exodus 20), and who are embraced by God’s mercy (Jeremiah 31). This new covenant will be something quite different, something extraordinary. Written on our hearts, it will effect an interior transformation.
The evils of today, those we witness and those of which we are a part, require much more than simple external change. If we are honest, we will admit that we need radical interior transformation. Our self-absorption and unbridled pursuit of personal satisfaction, our arrogant sense of superiority, the hatred and revenge that eat at our hearts, can be remedied only at their roots. We are certainly in need of a new covenant commitment.
The technical covenant formula, “I will be their God and they will be my people,” is comparable to the marriage formula: “I do take you as my spouse.” This language bespeaks loving intimacy. These words should make us step back in total amazement, for they imply that in the face of human infidelity, God establishes a covenant of the heart. Perhaps the failure of so many human commitments between couples, within families, at the workplace, and even among nations, clouds our eyes to the reality of God’s unbounded love. This is a remarkable covenant. When will it be established? “The days are coming, says the Lord.”
The sentiments of Psalm 51 might well be our response to God’s astounding offer of loving commitment: “Have mercy on me…wipe out my offense…create a clean heart in me.” Today we might say: ‘Help me to accept what I find bothersome in others; heal me of my stubbornness, my selfishness, and my pride; cleanse me of hatred of people of cultures that are foreign to me and of nations that might pose a threat.’ God announces that the days are coming when all of this will happen. Deep down in our hearts, can we believe this? Are we doing anything to bring it about? Yet even in the face of such doubt, God declares: “The days are coming.”
As we turn to the gospel, we hear Jesus say, “The hour has come.”True, it is the hour of his death, but it is also the hour of his glorification. While this glorification may refer in part to the unique relationship that he enjoys with God (a voice came from heaven), the reading suggests that it also has something to do with the new life that will spring from his death. Jesus’ obedience to his destiny, mentioned in both the gospel and the reading from Hebrews, opens the doors of life for us. In this he is glorified.
To whom will this new life be offered? The words in Jeremiah are addressed to both Israel and Judah, the two kingdoms that made up the entire nation. God calls these separated people tobe “my people.” The gospel teaches us that this new covenant is not merely meant for the Jewish people. Greeks, representatives of the entire world, came to see Jesus. In other words, all women and men are to be invited to this covenant. Jesus declares: “I will draw everyone to myself.”
Today we hear of a new covenant, a clean heart, a grain of wheat pregnant with fruitfulness. These are all poetic ways of describing the new way of living into which we can step if we so choose. The disarray of so much of our lives makes us realize that we must choose a different way of living. However, radical transformation does not come without a price. For our sake, Jesus suffered dearly, and he insists: “Whoever serves me must follow me.” And there is the rub!
Now that our Lenten journey is almost over, what have we learned from the readings of this season? In what ways are we willing to change? Whom are we willing to help, or to forgive? To what extent are we willing to die to our own selfishness so that the fruits of the new covenant can be brought forward? The hour of decision has come.
Carroll Stuhlmueller, CP, Distinguished Professor Emerita of Old Testament Studies