Sunday, March 22, 2009

Gospel Commentary Fifth Sunday of Lent (preview)

Each of our Gospel accounts gives us a unique picture of Jesus' life and ministry. John's Gospel tells us about a number of journeys Jesus made back and forth between Jerusalem and Galilee. Much of St. John's narrative recounts events which take place near Jerusalem. The Gospel also mentions three separate Passovers (John 2, 6, and 12) and this is how we know Jesus' public ministry lasted three years.

Even though the Gospel covers three years of Jesus' life it does not cover them equally. The first long section of John's Gospel (1:19-12:50), which scholars sometimes call the book of signs, covers almost three years. Chapter 12 begins with the six days prior to the final Passover. The next long section from 13:1-20:29 recounts in slow detail Jesus' final night with his disciples and then his passion, death and resurrection. The narrative slows from covering three years of time, to a single night, until finally it recounts the long awaited 'hour' when the Son of Man will be glorified. St. John highlights the climax of Jesus' ministry, the 'hour' of his glorification in the final chapters of his narrative. The 'hour' of Jesus' glorification means his passion, death and resurrection.

The notion of Jesus' glorification is an echo of a passage from Isaiah 53:13 "Behold my servant shall prosper: he shall be lifted up and glorified exceedingly." Jesus identifies himself with the Suffering Servant Songs of Isaiah. Jesus has already made reference to being lifted up earlier in John's Gospel, "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up (John 3:14, cf. 8:28). Jesus points to the same idea in the climax of his speech in this Sunday's Gospel, "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." (John 12:32).

Jesus leaves no doubt concerning his mission; "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). Jesus will freely offer his suffering and death as an act of obedience which will substitute for our disobedience. We must follow Christ and like him we must also become a servant. Jesus says, "Where I am, there my servant we be also" (John 12:26). The cost of discipleship is great.

In the anguish of his sacred humanity Jesus cries out, "Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour" (12:27-28). The use of 'now' links Jesus anguish to the 'hour' he just mentioned (v. 23). This incident is followed by a miraculous voice from heaven. In the other Gospel accounts we have already seen a voice from heaven at Jesus' baptism and at the transfiguration. The reference to thunder reminds us of Psalm 81:7, "In distress you called, and I delivered you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder." Even this miraculous revelation, can only be understood through faith in Jesus. The crowd offers various interpretations of the heavenly voice but fails to understand its meaning (cf. 12:37-42).

Jesus makes a clear parallel between the grain of wheat that "falls into the earth and dies" and the Son of Man who is "lifted up from the earth" to draw all men to himself. Discipleship involves becoming one with the Master. St. Paul uses this idea to demonstrate the essential key to our unity with Christ. Referring to our baptism, St. Paul writes, "We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:4). Through baptism we have been joined to Christ. St. Paul makes the same point in Galatians 3:27. He writes, "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ." We have been incorporated into Christ by means of baptism and the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 12:12-13).

St. Augustine comments on the deeper significance of our oneness or communion with Christ in his commentary on Psalm 26. He notes that the practice of anointing in the Old Testament was normally reserved for either the king or the priest. But Christ now holds both offices as both Priest and King in virtue of his anointing or literally being the Messiah or Anointed One. Speaking of Christ, St. Augustine observes, "But not only was our Head anointed; but his body was too, we ourselves. . . . From this it is obvious that we are the body of Christ, being all anointed. In him all of us belong to Christ, but we are Christ too, because in some sense the whole Christ is Head and body" (Exposition 2 of Psalm 26). St. Augustine has perfectly captured the emphasis St. Paul is helping us to understand. We not only become like Christ in Baptism but we actually become a New Creation which is joined to the New Adam—Christ Jesus. This is not a mere exterior conformity but an interior transformation which results in us in a sense becoming Christ himself.

In a more direct way a priest is referred to as an alter Christus, other Christ, or ipse Christus, Christ himself, but St. Paul is saying that all the faithful share in this unity but not in the special powers or munera of the priest. Again St. Augustine notes in his City of God, "all who have been anointed by his chrism we can rightly call christs and yet there is one Christ: the whole body with its Head" (City of God XVII, 4). The Catechism reminds us that, "The ministerial or hierarchical priesthood of bishops and priests, and the common priesthood of all the faithful participate, 'each in its own proper way, in the one priesthood of Christ'" (CCC 1547).

By means of our incorporation into Christ through baptism we all share in a common vocation to holiness and apostolate to the world. We are called to literally be Christ to our neighbors and to be transformed into a new creation in Christ. As St. Paul says in Second Corinthians, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come" (2 Corinthians 5:17). Holy Mary, Virgin Most Faithful, Queen of Apostles, pray for us this Lent.

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