5th Sunday Lent B

See commentary of John 12:20-23 in John 12:20-36.

Homily 1 - 2006

I love this second Reading. I’ll tell you why... It talks of Christ being the source of our eternal salvation. Salvation is one of those cliché words: What does it mean? Well, the Reading helps us figure that out. When talking about Christ, it spoke about his being saved: He prayed to the one who had the power to save him (out of death). And then it went on to identify his being saved with his becoming perfect. Perfect – another cliché word. It means: fully made. So Christ became fully made, that is, fully human, fully mature. Salvation means becoming fully, completely human. 

That gives rise to another question: What does it mean to be fully, completely human? Perhaps the answer can be had by answering another question: How do we become fully human? Jesus again is the model. He became fully human, perfect, by learning to obey God: He learnt to obey through suffering.. or, by submitting to God: He submitted so humbly that his prayer (to be saved) was heard.  

Problems again. Obeying and submitting don’t sound very appealing to the modern ear. What does obey mean? adults obeying, mature adults obeying? Our word comes from a Greek word (via Latin!). It means to listen from under, or from up against. It is a picture word. My image is of having my ear up against the heart of the other. It means to attune to the heart of another, not to give in to their power, but to synchronise with the deep desires, the dreams, the hopes, the values, the convictions, the commitment of the other. It means bringing my heart into line with the heart of the other.  

So Jesus was saved, became perfect, became fully human, by learning the heart of God, by probing the depths of the heart of God. But the author also talked of submission. He submitted so humbly that his prayer was heard. He was not talking about Jesus surrendering his sense of personal dignity, allowing himself to be walked over, but to freely choose to love – which simply meant to put the beloved’s true interests before his own surface needs and wants. If he came to learn, it sounds like it happened over time: he learnt to obey.. How did he learn to obey across time? The author said: During his life on earth, Christ offered up prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears,to God who had the power to save him. Basically he learnt to obey, he learnt the heart of God, by prayer, by meditation. 

But how do we know our growing isn’t just theory? How do we bring it from sounding nice, to being real? The author mentioned suffering, death – He learnt to obey through suffering... He prayed to the God who had the power to save him out of death... Suffering and death were in fact the context within which he came to check himself out. They forced him, as it were, to be honest with himself. Did he really see things that way? He didn’t like suffering.  Who does? unless they’re mad. Perhaps there are other ways.... And then there’s ... suffering and suffering... But when the chips were down, he preferred to grow as a man, to become fully human, to actualise his deepest human potential rather than to avoid suffering, even to the point of death.  

We follow the same path to full humanness, to salvation by tuning in to the heart of Christ: He becomes for all who obey him the source of eternal salvation. That is the task of prayer, of meditation – as it was with Christ. But not only meditation: practice, too: we choose the submission inevitably involved in loving: to put others’ true interests before our own surface needs and wants. And the usual context to lead us from theory to reality is suffering; from kidding ourselves to raw honesty, is the readiness to pay the price.

Homily 2 - 2009

I love the way the First Reading started today: See, the days are coming when ... The days are coming... The words touch into, and set racing, expectations .. hopes - lifting us out of the present sense of constriction, and limitation and dissatisfaction. The days are coming when ... 

When what? Jeremiah looked forward to a few future happenings; but the one that catches my imagination and ignites my deep desires is what he describes in this way: There will be no further need for brother to say to brother: 'Learn to know the Lord'. No, they will all know me .. for I will forgive their iniquity and never call their sin to mind. It would seem that, until then, they did not really know God. That would have surprised them and disconcerted them – because they prided themselves on their special relationship as a people to God. But, to Jeremiah's mind, as far as God was concerned, they did not really know God: the heart, the essence, of God. The God they did not know was the God who forgives iniquity and never calls sin to mind

We pride ourselves on knowing that God. We are sometimes inclined to dismiss what we call the Hebrew God as a harsh God, and claim that the Christian God is a God who loves, a God of mercy. We have the right words, but, in my experience, a lot of Catholics, despite what they think and how they see themselves, don't really believe in the God who forgives iniquity and never calls sin to mind. I think that a lot of us, despite what we say, don't even want a God like that and feel unconsciously  uneasy with a God who never calls sin to mind. We want a God who's fair. We need a God who's fair. We're at ease in a world like that. We can relate to it. Really, we don't need a God of mercy - though the thought does give a sort of warm glow, or of comfortable cosiness. 

Most of us aren't in touch with our own sin - so basically we think we're fairly safe. We might have to do a bit of time in Purgatory, but, ultimately, we're pretty right, and don't fear anything too drastic. We've never really faced our selective and restricted levels of loving. We haven't seen our radical self-interest, our own actual or potential harshness and instinctive (and pervasive) judgementalism. 

But, when it comes to others ... when it comes to the real sinners, we feel rather glad that God is fair. I'm not sure we want a God who loves Caiaphas as much as Jesus, Hitler or Stalin as much as Mother Teresa, abortionists as much as me. Do we want a God who never calls sin to mind? Surely, that's somehow not right! But, for Jeremiah, that's the only God that is. [Certainly, Caiaphas, Hitler or Stalin, and many others, may have  closed themselves off from the God who loves them, and thereby locked themselves into an eternity of absolute self-absorption, of total, and undistracted, aloneness and emptiness. God made them free. They may have preferred the ways of non-love; they may, accordingly, have chosen their own hell - but God does not put them there. The utter lovelessness of Hell is our creation – not God's.]   

Perhaps it takes a lifetime to come to terms with the mystery we call God, with the mystery of total and unconditioned love, with a God who forgives our iniquity and never calls our sin to mind. Perhaps it takes a lifetime to explore the heart of  God. ... Perhaps it takes eternity to explore the heart of God. But, slowly, we can begin to let go of our self-righteousness, our instinctive, never-ending, comparing ourselves with others, those securities based on fairness and retribution  and reward for services rendered. Slowly, we can come to see that all is gift – all is gift. The gift is ours to receive if only we can cut loose from our compulsive self-reliance, and trust the God whose only love is unconditional and absolutely certain. 

The days are coming ... Indeed!

Homily 3 - 2012

I was lucky to study in Rome for six years. During the summer breaks from the University each year, we used to go, as a College, to a villa at Castelgandolfo, where we shared a common fence with the papal villa next door. During the month or so that the Pope was in residence there, he would give a weekly audience to pilgrims in the courtyard of his villa. I went along once to see him.  [It was Pius XII in those days.] That was enough for me. But I remember that a few of my fellow students would go along faithfully every week to the audience. They "wanted to see" the Pope. 

I wonder if the Greek pilgrims in today's Gospel passage who wanted to see Jesus were like my fellow students. Or were they like the two disciples of the Baptist, [mentioned in the first chapter of John's Gospel], who, one day, down by the Jordan River, followed Jesus? Remember the story? Jesus turned and asked them: What do you want? They replied:  Where do you live? Jesus answered: Come and see. And the Gospel author commented: They came and saw - and stayed.   

We want to see Jesus. Is that where you're at? Is that why you are here today, celebrating Eucharist? And where along the spectrum would you place yourself? - content simply to be present, to see him, as it were, like my fellow students seeing the Pope? - or like those former disciples of the Baptist who came and saw and stayed? Do you want  to get close to Jesus? to know him well? to develop a real intimate friendship? 

Today's Gospel finished with the comment: When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all to myself. Where was that coming from? Does Jesus want to draw us all to himself? … And why? A bit of an ego-trip, like a lot of celebrities? Or does he want to draw us into deep friendship, deep relationship, with himself? Why would he want to draw me? Why would he want to draw you to himself? Do we matter that much? Is that why he died – to draw us close to himself? It seems so. When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all to myself.  

When you look at a crucifix thoughtfully, what effect does it have on you? I know that at one stage in my life, I had to get rid of a lot of unhelpful baggage. During my early years  particularly, at mission after mission, [and probably at other times, too], I would hear the message: "After all that suffering that Jesus endured for me, how could I be so ungrateful, and so uncaring, as to sin deliberately and make him suffer?" I think I was being manipulated… And it confused me – using Jesus' suffering to get me to conform. It didn't set me free, just locked me in to useless remorse; hardly drew me closer, more trustfully, more hopefully, to himself. When you look thoughtfully at a crucifix, do you feel that Jesus is shaming you? Or is he telling you you're worth it? you're precious? he'd do it again for you, if necessary? 

What might Jesus' being lifted up show us? Obviously, it revealed the hostility, the violence, the blindness, the self-righteousness, the cowardice, the treachery, the callous indifference of a whole lot of different people. It raises the question: Were those directly involved particularly evil? Or are we all pretty much the same? just scratch the surface and see [or suspect] what's underneath. But Jesus' being lifted up shows us more. He consciously and deliberately accepted being tortured and murdered. He did it because of his consistent choice to love and to forgive a world that is hostile, violent, blind, self-righteous, cowardly, treacherous and callously indifferent. Recognising guilt yet knowing we are loved is world's apart from shame and remorse. 

If we look long enough, we find that his unshakeable love for us sets us free to see and to admit to our hearts of stone. It stirs us freely to want to be different. As we let that love slowly soak into our hearts, we find that it changes us; it empowers us. We are not only drawn to him. We learn to love and be gentle with ourselves. We are drawn, too, to each other, even, sometimes, to our enemies. 

When I am lifted up, I shall draw all to myself.

Homily 4 - 2015

Easter is almost upon us. Even from pre-Christian times it was the season when people thought of life, fertility and vitality – of rabbits and eggs. But for us Christians, it says more – not just the annual cycle of life and vitality but new life beyond. Baptism, too, is about new life, being reborn, born from above. From its earliest years, the Church regarded the baptismal font as the womb of the Church. Over the past month, we have been celebrating Lent, remembering our own baptism; and this morning, from that baptismal womb, Jannah will step forth newborn.

New life speaks of new capacity and heightened sensitivity. One simple instance of that will be that, through her belonging to family and now to the wider Christian community, Jannah will learn of her origin from the creating, loving hand of God. She will realise that, since God is love, the energy that enlivens and holds her and the whole cosmos in existence is Love. She will know where she is headed – to life with God, already accessible on earth and destined to endure into eternity. As today’s First Reading revealed, God has promised that all could come to know him in the deepest of personal relationships. Jannah will learn to seek, to find and to respond to God who has first sought and found her. Through all this she will find meaning and purpose in her life – all conspiring to put a fresh spring in her step and sparkle in her eye!

St Paul understood Christian life as our sharing in the life of the risen Christ, who brings us with him into the very mystery of God. Yet to share in Christ’s resurrection, we need firstly to share in his dying. Paul saw both death and resurrection symbolised in baptism. For him, our stepping down into the water of the font symbolised Christ’s going down into the tomb and the realm of death. Stepping up from the font, we rise with Christ to new and resurrected life. In that dying and rising we are changed forever.

In today’s Gospel Jesus spoke of how the grain of wheat must fall into the ground and die before it breaks through the soil and grows over time to abundant, life-giving maturity. The Second Reading claimed that Jesus became perfect through suffering. His experience is also ours. We grow from infancy, through the teen years to adulthood. Each further stage involves dying to the familiarity and securities of the former one. Realistically, all growth in life involves surrender to the way of love, trust and discipline. As we grow in self-knowledge, we move from the ingenuous obedience of childhood to the free, adult obedience shown by the adult Jesus to his loving Father. We recognise how God has written his law in our hearts, implanting it deep within our being. We recognise that law as the law of genuine human love. Love costs. Yet it alone makes sense. To the extent that we resolutely recommit ourselves to that way of love, we become increasingly Christ-like [or christened].

We live in a culture that has no real confidence in the way of consistent love; a culture racked by its own violence. We make a frightening mess of our world. To travel Christ’s lonely way of love we need support. Today we offer that support to each other and particularly to young Jannah. That is what Church is about. And we are the Church!

Homily 5 - 2018

I find today’s reading from Jeremiah fascinating. Jeremiah lived about six hundred years before Christ. Like a few of his fellow prophets he had a wonderful sense of the forgiving love of God, “I will forgive their iniquity, and never call their sin to mind.” But he did not quite have it all together. He left an inconsistent, hard streak still in God, imagining God saying, “I had to show them who was master.” People still had so much more growing up to do before they would get the fuller insight into the mystery of God yet to be revealed by Jesus.

We should not be too patronizing. Most of us still seem to harbour an inconsistent, hard streak in God – a God wonderfully forgiving at times, and then, at other times, condemning to eternal torture in hell. We image God according to our own inconsistency.

Today's Second Reading is also wonderful; yet it, too, can also present a problem, depending on the English words we choose to translate some of the original Greek words used by the author. Words like “submission” and “obey” can be misleading. What they are referring to is the approach eagerly undertaken by Jesus across his life to explore and grow ever more deeply in his sense of the inmost heart of God his Father. It was particularly at the time of his death that he grew to experience the full depth of his Father’s love for him personally, and for his integrity, as well as the Father’s equally incredible love for all humanity. Jesus who “grew in wisdom and age and grace” became “perfect”/consistent/fully human at last, stretched by his “suffering”, as the author put it. Perhaps Jesus’ love for his Father and the Fathers’ love for Jesus was like your experience as parents and spouses as you continue across life to grow to recognize, to appreciate and to emulate your common love for each other and for your children. That experience can give you a window into the hearts of both Jesus and of his Father.

Also significant in that Second Reading is the author’s comment, “he became for all who obey him the source of eternal salvation”. But salvation from whom? salvation from what? Certainly not from God who loves and forgives us unconditionally. We need salvation from ourselves and from each other, from mutual hostility, destructiveness and violence whatever shape it takes.

Again, it is important to understand “obey” as meaning “tuning in eagerly to the heart of the other, wanting to learn the other’s inner motivation, seeking to align our will with that of the other.” To the extent that we know and follow the heart of Jesus, that we really take him seriously, allowing him to motivate and empower us to follow his way of love and non-violence, then, and only then, do we begin to experience salvation.

This brings us to the Gospel passage, and to Jesus’ reassuring promise, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw everyone to myself”, and to John’s subsequent comment, “By these words [Jesus] indicated the kind of death he would die.” Jesus’ constant problem was to get people to follow him, to motivate them to change and to take seriously his way of love and non-violence as the way to save us from ourselves and each other. He knew clearly enough people were planning to kill him. He hoped that by eventually coming to reflect on his willingness to be tortured and killed rather than to retaliate [and thereby compromise all he believed in], people would be inescapably shocked into recognizing their habitual ways of handling conflict. Even more, his being raised to life and his spontaneous response of unconditional, universal forgiveness would show how deeply he was convinced of and truly meant what he said.

Why are we still so slow to get his point? Perhaps we want salvation by magic, rather than by actively co-operating with him in the glorious task of bringing about salvation.