(See the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 22)
A.J. Cronin, an English medical doctor and writer, was most known for his works, “The Citadel” and “Keys of the Kingdom.” In another book titled “Adventures in Two Worlds,” he recalls working as a medical officer for a Welsh mining company. In one episode he writes of Olwen Davis, a district nurse who when she met Cronin had worked for over 20 years helping the sick and ill. He writes that she worked with fortitude and patience, calmness and cheerfulness. He recalls: “This unconscious selflessness, which above all seemed the keynote of her character was so poorly rewarded, it worried me. Although she was much beloved by the people, her salary was most inadequate. And late one night after a particularly strenuous case, I ventured to protest to her as we drank a cup of tea together. ‘Nurse,’ I said, ‘Why don’t you make them pay you more? It’s ridiculous that you should work for so little.’ She raised her eyebrows slightly. But she smiled. ‘I have enough to get along.’ ‘No really,’ I persisted, ‘you ought to have an extra pound a week at least. God knows you’re worth it.’ There was a pause. Her smile remained, but her gaze held a gravity, an intensity which startled me. ‘Doctor,’ she said, ‘if God knows I’m worth it, that’s all that matters to me.’”
“If God knows I’m worth it, that’s all that matters to me.” Profound words for reflection as we continue our journey through Lent to Holy Week. In last Sunday’s Gospel, we heard: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
The Gospel passage for this Sunday’s liturgy speaks to how this salvation is accomplished. The reading is again from the Gospel according to John. Jesus says: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Jesus is the Son of Man. You may recall that the title Son of Man refers to the role of divine judge. Jesus’ role as judge will be now manifest or “glorified.”
Jesus then begins an analogy describing how this glorification will take place — the grain of wheat must die. Jesus becomes the Son of Man on the cross. He is the divine judge over all humanity. Giving completely of himself in suffering and death he is lifted up as judge. His judgment is mercy.
Jesus dies so that we might live. “Amen, Amen, I say to you: 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.” Jesus dies and pours forth new life into humanity. The fruit that is born of this life will be abundant. We might look to the first reading, a passage from the Prophet Jeremiah, for some insight into this new life.
The Lord, speaking through Jeremiah his messenger, recalls his saving activity in the life of Israel; particularly his delivering Israel from slavery in Egypt. The words used reflect a level of intimacy: “I took them by the hand.” The Lord was present to his people. He cared for them. He delivered them. He established a covenant with them and gave them the law to keep the covenant. But his people broke the covenant and disobeyed the law.
The Lord recalls all this as a preamble to a promise, the promise of something new, a new covenant. The new law will be placed “within them” and written “upon their hearts.” The Lord says: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” God will be known through this covenant, as he says: “for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.” Jesus is the fulfillment of this promise. In his passion and death Jesus establishes the new covenant. As the glorified Son of Man, Jesus has the authority over the law. He is the judge; he judges with mercy, and in his judgment there is life.
In the Gospel passage, Jesus continues by calling us to imitate him: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” The image he uses is perhaps clearer when we ask ourselves, “How is Jesus using the term ‘life’?” Here a distinction is important. The second use — “hates his life in this world” — helps to clarify. Jesus is making a distinction between life that is limited to this world, for example biological life, and life that is eternal, that is divine life. An outlook on life that values the things of this world above all else is futile; it will pass as surely as the things of this world pass. An outlook on life that values the divine will endure forever.
So Jesus is saying that any attitudes or dispositions and actions that place life in this world above the divine life he offers is not life-giving; in fact it robs one of life. Hence the call to “lose” one’s life and to “hate one’s life in this world.” Through this teaching, Jesus is calling us to imitate him as we live in his love. In him the two-fold law of love of God and love of neighbor is perfected.
Jesus loves the Father. He places all his trust and reliance in him. The gravity and immensity of what was about to unfold in the passion was clearly known to Jesus as he prays: “I am troubled now. Yet what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’” Jesus trusts the Father completely. He literally places his life in the Father’s hands. The passage from the Letter to the Hebrews which serves as today’s second reading describes it this way: “he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who as able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”
Jesus offers himself in love of the Father and for love of us. As Jesus’ life is poured out on the cross, it is poured into a broken humanity that is now being restored to life. The life he gives us is one that animates our existence. Dwelling within us he urges us to share in his life-giving passion by giving of ourselves to others in love and mercy.
The A.J. Cronin story above recalls the self-giving life of a country nurse motivated not by the things of this world — money, compensation, honor or prestige. The self-giving was motivated by God’s love, specifically God’s love for her. She recognized his love and the magnitude of that love.
Continuing our Lenten preparations for Easter, we contemplate the cross as the sign of God’s love and mercy. The Father sends his son into the world to defeat evil and sin because “we are worth it.” Jesus’ was willing to endure suffering, torture, rejection and humiliation because “we are worth it.” He died for us because “we are worth it.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.
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