Thursday, 2 April 2009

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

"Sir, we wish to see Jesus."
Did the group of Greeks in the Gospel this morning know what they meant by asking this question? Perhaps they had heard of Our Lord and what he had said and done and realised that this man was someone it was important for them to meet. Perhaps they were motivated by curiosity, perhaps most likely a mixture of the two. But like us, they have heard something of Jesus and they want to find out more.
The response Our Lord makes is very surprising. He doesn’t simply go and talk to them, but instead he meets them - and everyone who asks the same question, including ourselves - at their greatest point of need. What do we mean when we say we wish to see Jesus? And what is the point of any encounter with him?
Hence the startling response; because Jesus doesn’t just go and have a chat with them, he starts talking about his death. And what Our Lord is saying to all of us is that if we really want to “see” him - that is, to see him for who he really is - we have to be confronted with the reality and necessity of the cross, and that is how we come to see him and know him.
The question of who Jesus is is absolutely central here - literally crucial. In Jesus we see our God sharing our life and death to free us from sin - our own (the things we should take direct personal responsibility for) and those we inherit through the process of history and the general messiness of human life - to bring us back into relationship with him. This is God’s great act of solidarity with the human race, but not as a gesture or merely a symbol. God doesn’t
make empty gestures. This is the ultimate act of love which saves us and leads us to the new life of resurrection. The cross answers our question: “Sir, we want to see Jesus.”
In the crucified Lord, lifted up from the earth, we see what the love of God is all about, a love which holds nothing back, which has no limits placed upon it. In Jesus, crucified and risen, we meet God, the focus of our lives, the source of all our freedom and the reason for our hope and joy.
And when we come to the cross, this is what we see: we are drawn to it not by the grotesque and barbaric spectacle of crucifixion, but by the love and mercy we see displayed there.
This may seem a strange thing to say, but in the cross we don‘t only see Jesus, we also see ourselves in our pain, our need, our sinfulness. As followers of Jesus, as those he calls his friends, we are all called to meet and in some way embrace the cross in our own lives - to recognise the pain of our human condition and prostrate ourselves before the cross asking for forgiveness and healing.
And this is what this morning’s Gospel says to us. When in response to the enquiry of the little group of Greeks, Jesus alludes to the mystery of His death, he is saying to us all that his passion and death are the key to a more profound understanding of the meaning and purpose of our lives. To "see" Jesus is to begin to be united with him in his sacrifice and in his dying to himself in order to live for us. At the heart of his message is the need to let go our selfishness and egoism, our much protected autonomy and individualism, so we might experience the life of God.
In today’s Gospel Jesus uses this example from nature to explain his eaning. "Unless a grain of wheat falls onto the earth and dies, it remains alone." The grain of wheat left by itself produces nothing; it’s only when it seems to have died and has been buried in the earth that it is able to bring forth fruit - in far greater abundance than a single grain ever could. This is true of Jesus himself; we see this most clearly in the events of Holy Week and Easter, but it is true for us, too, in so far as we deepen our relationship, our true encounter with Christ.
Here, now, as we celebrate the unfolding story of our redemption of the Church’s year, as we spend time in prayer, the events of the Gospel come alive for us. We too say 'we wish to see Jesus', and we do see him lifted up before us, at every celebration of the Eucharist. We see Christ, and he draws us to himself, in the all the sacraments, especially when we come together at the Eucharist to offer his death to the Father and to receive his life in Holy Communion.
We will see and encounter Jesus in a particularly intense way through the celebration of the liturgies of next week - Holy Week - which is why we should try to experience as much of it as we possibly can. We miss so much if all we share of it is Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. And we miss the point completely, absolutely and altogether if we allow ourselves to be put off by the angst, the suffering and the pain of Holy Week and simply try to experience Easter Day in isolation from the events leading up to it. We shouldn’t be seduced by the shying away from painful human realities which characterises so much of contemporary life. “Make it bland, make it pain-free, let’s not even speak about pain and death, even though both await us all at some point.”
Easter chicks and fluffy bunnies and chocolate eggs are all very nice but they won’t save us, neither will the glories of the renewal of nature in the unfolding Spring. The world turns its back on the events of Holy Week because it has no hope in any future once this life is over. It turns its back on reality for exactly the same reason, yet in turning its back on things as they inevitably are, it turns its back on salvation itself and the freedom and the hope it offers us.
Our society’s rejection of Christian faith, if you believe the propaganda of our fashionable elites, is supposed to be about the heroic rejection of fantasy and the facing up to harsh reality; yet where does it end? In the no-doubt comfortable and tastefully furnished ante-room of a Swiss clinic waiting for a smiling doctor armed with a lethal injection.
In stark contrast we find salvation and freedom and hope - as the Greeks did in the Gospel today - in the reality of Jesus and in our sharing in his ultimate confrontation with sin and death which we commemorate at this most sacred period of the Christian year.
And the Jesus we see - who gives us the new life of his resurrection through the sacraments of the Church - we still long to be able to see face to face to reach out and touch him. And this is promised to us as well. Our following of Jesus doesn‘t end with our death. The Lord who was exalted on the cross was also raised from the dead, and he draws everyone who longs to see him to the fullness of happiness for all eternity in the vision of God. That is a joy that as yet we cannot possibly fully either share or understand, but its signs are all around us if we have the eyes of faith to be able to see them.

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