April 9, 2000 -- 5th Sunday of Lent "B"
Jer 31,31-34; Heb 5,7-9; John 12,20-33
H O M I L Y
The text from Jeremiah that we heard in the first reading of this Mass is one of the most beautiful text from the Bible on conversion. First, it describes conversion as a gift from God; but most of all, it describes it not as a simple change of behavior, not as the replacement of an "ego" by another "ego", but as a profound change of the heart. And by profound change of the heart we must understand not simply a purer heart, a heart that desires nicer things, but a heart that has become so impregnated by the Spirit of God that it spontaneously desires what God desires. "I will place my law within [you], says the Lord, and write it upon your hearts... No longer will you need to teach your friends and kinsmen how to know the Lord, All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the Lord."
This is radical obedience to God. Radical, because it is obedience through the root (radix) of our being.
But how does God realize in us that change? How does he teach us his law? How do we learn obedience? There is no other way than the way that Christ himself has taught us; the way that he himself used.
The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us of his prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to God, and then adds: "he learned obedience through suffering"... Have not all made the experience that the most important things in life are learned through suffering, and could never be learned through a whole life of study. But then the text adds that He became a source of salvation for all who obey him. So we are called to obey him just as he has obeyed the Father, in the same radical way, through the same radical surrender of our whole existence. But how can we learn obedience, if not through suffering, as he did?
This is why he tells us, in the Gospel: "Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit. The man who loves his life loses it, while the man who hates his life in this world preserves it to life eternal."
What it is the meaning of that riddle that we find quite a few times in the Gospel (in slightly different forms): "the one who saves his life will lose it; the man who loses his life will save it"? To save one's life means to hold onto it, to love it and be attached to it and therefore to fear death. To lose one's life is to let go of it, to be detached from it and therefore to be willing to die. The paradox is that the person who fears death is already dead, whereas the one who has ceased to fear death has at that moment begun to live.
But why must someone be ready to suffer and to die? ‑‑ Does that make sense at all? The key word here is "compassion" (= suffering with). The one thing that Jesus was determined to destroy was suffering and death: the suffering of the poor and the oppressed, the suffering of the sick, the suffering and death of all the victims of injustice first of all. But the only way to destroy suffering is to give up all worldly values and suffer the consequences.
Only the willingness to suffer can conquer suffering in the world. Compassion destroys suffering by suffering with and on behalf of those who suffer. A sympathy with the poor that is unwilling to share their sufferings would be a useless emotion. One cannot share the blessings of the poor unless one is willing to share their sufferings. The same thing can be said of death.
This is what Jesus has done for us. This is what we will commemorate in our celebrations of the next few weeks. Let us find in today's Eucharist the strength to follow in his steps.