"Life is not so much beginnings and endings as it is middles, middles that don't measure up -- and our happiness depends on how we come to terms with the pale reflections of our dreams. (Paul D. Zimmerman, "Middles and Muddles," review of film "Sunday Bloody Sunday," Newsweek, September 27, 1971, 106)

Gospel for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (21 March 2021)

Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
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Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. (John 12:20–33 – NRSV).

Introductory notes

General

This incident is unique to John. The express desire of “some Greeks” – indicating the wider world beyond Judaism – to “see” Jesus, contrasts with “the Jews” (ie religious authorities) who keep wanting him out of their sight. The moment also provides the occasion for Jesus to speak of the “glory of God” that will be manifest in his “being lifted up”. This is in fact the very heart of the Jesus Story as far as John is concerned. The work of evil, darkness, the lie will be overcome. All we need do is believe in him.

It is worth noting that this passage in John follows immediately on Jesus’ “triumphant” entry into Jerusalem, when the people line the route shouting “Hosanna!”. In Luke’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem the multitude shouts, “Glory in the highest.” – see Luke 19:38. The “glory” and “glorification”/”exaltation” John has in mind is something different and when it is manifest, the people will be so absorbed in the horror of his death, they will miss the truth of what is happening before their eyes. They will come to see and believe later.

Specific

some Greeks: John could be referring to those Jews from the Diaspora who speak Greek. “They came to Philip” – Philip is a common Greek Name. The fact that there had been a translation of the Hebrew version of the Torah into Greek since the 3rd century, indicates what a significant group these Greek-speakers were. Legend has it that 72 Jewish scholars – six from each of the twelve tribes – were asked by the Greek King of Egypt, Ptolemy II, to produce a Greek text of the Torah. According to the legend, they took 72 days to do that. Whatever the truth in the legend, that text has come down to us as the Septuagint – from the Latin word Septuaginta, meaning “seventy”. Other books of the Hebrew Bible were translated in Greek later. St Paul – quoting from memory or text – always cites the Septuagint when he refers to the Hebrew Bible.

The fact that they “went up to worship at the festival” suggests these Greek-speakers are practicing Jews. In John “the Jews” are hostile to Jesus. In fact, there is an extended section at the end of this very chapter in which Jesus berates “the Jews” for their lack of belief – see 12:37-50. However, these “Greeks” who are also Jews, do not invite a rebuff from Jesus.

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified: Are we to conclude that the request of “the Greeks” – representing “the nations of the world” – is the trigger that tells Jesus “the hour has come”? God’s glory is to be manifest in Jesus and through him and it is according to God’s timing. Thus Jesus says to Mary at the wedding feast in Cana, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come” (2:4), to the Samaritan woman at the well, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming” (4:21), and John tells us that, when those who objected to his teaching, “tried to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him, because his hour had not yet come” (7:30) and similarly, “He spoke these words while he was teaching in the treasury of the temple, but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come” (8:20). In the Gospel today, the implication is that something momentous is about to be revealed – “the hour has come”. Up until now the references have been to something in the future. Now that changes. Thus we will hear Jesus say, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name” (12:27. See also 13:1 and 17:1). The hour is the revelation of God’s glory in and through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit: The manifestation of God’s glory is – shockingly – through Jesus’ death. “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die”. It is not enough to say that Jesus died just because he was a human being and all human beings will die. Nor is it enough to say he died because he got offside with those who wielded power. While there is a truth in each of these explanations, they do not help us understand the ultimate significance of Jesus’ death. Being authentically human is about being in the flesh – incarnation. And being in the flesh demands that we embrace fully our mortality – everyday, everywhere. The truth is, however, that death-denial seems to be a primitive force within us all. It is the source of sin in its many manifestations – selfishness, greed, hatred, violence, idolatry and all manner of death-dealing. We become victims and purveyors of the death we seek to evade. Excarnation seems to come more “naturally” than incarnation. Through him, with him and in him, the otherwise impossible journey of incarnation becomes possible.

The great paradox is that dying is actually part of the Passover – “unless the grain of wheat dies etc”. Our way to life is through death. So death and dying may be life-giving or simply death-dealing.

loves … hates: “Semitic usage favors vivid contrasts to express preferences. Deut 21:15; Matt 6:24; Luke 14:26 are more examples of this” (Raymond E Brown, The Gospel according to John (I–XII): Introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 29), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 467).

Reflection

It is easy to forget – and we must not forget! – the huge transformation that the disciples have to go through in their thinking of the Christ. The standard assumptions would have been strongly influenced by the legends of David passed down through the ages. At the very least, the Christ would meet some acceptable criteria of human success. Little if anything in current thinking prepared them for a Christ who would be vulnerable, apparently defeated by the powers that be, left to die an ignominious death like a criminal on a Roman cross for the passing world to mock.

Let us pause for a moment. We approach this story knowing the end. These are three huge days, all interdependent, each giving meaning to the others: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Day. The disciples who witnessed the crucifixion, however, would not have thought to call that day “Good Friday”. It was in fact the most horrible day they had every experienced! Can you sense anything of that horror?

Nearly thirty years after the death of Jesus, St Paul finds it necessary to address this issue of the kind of Christ God has sent: “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). A little further on in the same Letter, Paul exclaims: “We speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’” (2:7-9). The glory of God is seen in the crucified one. What is more, it is also our glory.

In today’s Gospel – John 12:20-33 – written about thirty years after these words of St Paul, the same issue arises. John, like St Paul, recognizes in Jesus’ being “lifted up”, the manifestation of God’s glory. John places great emphasis on signs. Thus John says of the miracle at the wedding feast in Cana, “this was the first of Jesus’ signs” (2:11). The ultimate “sign” of the truth that “God so loved the world he gave his only Son” (3:16), is clothed in the horrors of the crucifixion.

Bearing in mind the experience of those first disciples for whom that horror was only too real, we should take time to let the truth of Jesus’ being “lifted up” speak its real truth to our hearts now. Yes, we know the ending of the story – sort of. The post-Friday and pre-Sunday moments that dot our days – the tedium of routine, the stress of others, our own anxieties and fears, the presence of tragedy etc – can bring us to truly know the horrible beauty at the heart of our faith.