19 March 2018

Homily - 18 March 2018 - The Fifth Sunday of Lent

The Fifth Sunday of the Lent (B)

We are, as it in were, in the midst of a slow liturgical death. On Ash Wednesday, the great song of Alleluia fell silent. Yesterday, the images of the Cross of the Lord and his saints were veiled to keep us more focused on the task at hand through a fasting even of the eyes. On Holy Thursday, the bells will fall silent, the altar will be stripped, and the holy water will be removed from the fonts. On Good Friday, even the Holy Mass is taken away. But then, suddenly, on Holy Saturday night, everything returns with what Saint Augustine called “the mother of all holy vigils,” the great Easter Vigil.[1] It is a slow, methodical, and intentional liturgical death, a dying culminating in the Resurrection of the Lord.

Each of these little deaths, each of these small sufferings which Mother Church offers to us, are a means of expressing something of what Jesus means when he says, “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (John 12:24). This is a passage very dear to my heart, one I first discovered on my first Great River Teens Encounter Christ retreat more than twenty years ago, and one that will be proclaimed at my funeral. With this common and everyday analogy, Jesus reveals the mystery of his own life and the mystery of the Christian faith. Just as the grain of wheat must surrender and die in order to break through the shell and the soil to reach the sunlight, so, too, do we die to our liturgical senses to focus more on the heart of Christ and so be perfected.

In much the same way, whenever we suffer, there is a certain dying that takes place as we come to accept the reality that we, with our will and desires, are not in control of our lives. There is a greater will than ours governing our lives to which we are called to obey, for the Lord says to us, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be” (John 12:26). This is why Saint Peter encourages us, saying, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (I Peter 4:12-13).

Following Jesus in this manner seems a daunting and risky proposition. Rather than accepting suffering as something good, our first instinct is often to do all we can to remove it. This, however, is not the example of our Lord who “became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). He accepted the Cross as the will of the Father. He loved us to the end by giving his life for us, by allowing himself to be

like a grain of wheat that God the Father has sown in the world. Indeed, only in this way can a new humanity germinate and grow, free from the dominion of sin and able to live in brotherhood, as sons and daughters of the one Father who is in Heaven.[2]

Are we willing to accept the pain that comes with this growth? Are we willing to die to ourselves to allow the new growth, the new and full humanity, Christ yearns for us to have?

He calls us to imitate himself and to unite ourselves to his Cross, but what does it mean to be wheat? It means,

Letting oneself be permeated by the forces of the earth and from on high. Letting oneself be changed in them, letting oneself be decisively transformed by what comes to us as a challenge: by God’s trials, by his gifts, by yearning, by the good things and the difficult things that people give us to bear. And growing, becoming new in this maturation process.[3]

This is the task and the challenge of the Christian life, especially in these final days of Lent and the deliberate removal of various aspects of the liturgy can help us take up again the spiritual weapons of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to endure and triumph with Christ over the many trials that come to us.

He calls each of us to become like that grain and die to our selfish ambitions, desires, and sin in order to produce much fruit, both in our lives and in the lives of others. He calls us to unite our sufferings with his own for the salvation of the world. This is what we call redemptive suffering, a suffering that benefits others, a suffering that is not suffered in vain. This is what gives suffering its beauty, its power, and its grace. Like the grain of wheat, each of us must struggle to overcome our selfishness and live for Christ in order to bear his fruit in our lives, the fruits of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Those who produce these fruits will be with Jesus because they will have become like him.

If we desire to be with the Lord we must follow him; and whoever follows him must be his servant, so that we might be called, in the end, his friends (cf. John15:15). Therefore, whoever wishes to be with Jesus must follow him to the Cross. In a word, a Christian must be willing to suffer. This is, in effect, the response Jesus gives to those who said to Philip, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21). Is this not the yearning of every heart, to see Jesus, to see him who is the fulfillment of our every desire? The Lord knows this, for he has placed it within our hearts.

It is curious to note that Jesus uses his analogy of the dying wheat after the request of the Greeks to see him. Whenever we say, “We wish to see you,” the Lord responds as he did in the Gospel: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). It is as though he says, “The time has come for you to see my Cross. If you wish to see me, you must look to my Cross; if you wish to see me, look to your sufferings. In these you will see me and know my glory.”

When the voice of the Father was heard confirming all that Jesus had said, some in the crowd thought it only thunder. Why? They did not hear the truth because they remained in the crowd, outside the circle of Jesus’ friends; they were near him, but they were not close to him; they refused to enter into the mystery of Jesus Christ. The same is true with us. If we wish to remain merely as bystanders to the suffering of Jesus and to his Cross, we will not see his glory. But if we enter into his suffering, if we embrace his Cross in our lives, then we will see him and recognize his glory.

In these coming days, then, may we, like humble grains of wheat, so allow ourselves to be transformed by God’s challenges and gifts as to mature in faith, in hope, and in love. May we seek to become obedient to the Cross as it comes to us and so be perfected in the glory of Christ. And, having been perfected, may we see him face to Face. Amen.

[1] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 219.
[2] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 29 March 2009.
[3] Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, Teaching and Learning the Love of God: Being a Priest Today. Michael J. Miller, trans. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017), 52.

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