"Anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for the eternal life"
(Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 5:7-9; John 12:20-30)
Introduction to Mass
Today is the fifth Sunday of Lent. We're well into the second half of the Season of Lent and the theme of repentance and conversion moves into the background and the other aspect of Lent comes to the fore: preparing for Easter, for Holy Week and the commemoration of Jesus' last days on earth, his death and resurrection.
That's reflected especially in Jesus' words in the gospel reading today, where he looks forward to his own death as the culmination of his work and his mission.
The first reading this Sunday is a short section of the Book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was the original and definitive prophet of gloom. More than any other prophet, Jeremiah's preaching consisted of lamentations and reproaches against the Chosen People for their lack of faithfulness to God and God's Law and gloomy predictions about what would happen to them if they didn't repent.
In actual fact Jeremiah's dire predictions came true. During his lifetime, about six hundred years before the time of Christ, the Babylonians invaded Judah, destroyed the Temple and deported an enormous number of Jews, forcing them into exile. It was the end of Judah as an independent country and of course a huge trauma for the Chosen People.
In these circumstances Jeremiah expressed the hope that through this catastrophe God would work some good. He would use the new situation to inaugurate a new stage in his relationship with his people. There would be a New Covenant and it would be an advance on the Old.
Jeremiah obviously implies a new kind of response to God on the part of the Chosen People. Instead of being like a child who only keeps his parents rules, or refrains from breaking the rules, because of the promise of reward or the threat of punishment, now they would keep God's law and live God's commandments because their own conscience directs them to.
Instead of a purely external conformity now God's law would be internalised, or interiorised - and they would pursue the right path because it would be part of their basic character and identity. This is what Jeremiah means when he talks about God's Law being planted deep within his people and written on their hearts.
After Jesus' resurrection the first communities of Christians were quick to see passages like this in the Old Testament as referring to the new situation brought about by Christ, his new teaching and the new phase in the history of God's relationship with humankind.
This wasn't what Jeremiah himself envisaged. He could only have been thinking of a purified Jewish faith and it's only right that we should respect the integrity of the Jewish scriptures by acknowledging the meaning which these passages have in their original context.
But the way we understand the Bible to be the inspired Word of God, there's no contradiction in seeing the original "Jewish" meaning of the passage and the later Christian meaning as both being valid interpretations and communicating different levels of truth about God.
If we turn then and look at the gospel passage we find that the author, Saint John, is describing one of the aspects of Jesus' mission which made the first Christians convinced that his appearance in history heralded a new stage in God's dealings with humanity, or a New Covenant, in Jeremiah's phrase.
These remarks of Christ - a seed has to die first before it can yield a harvest, and anyone who loves his life will lose it, while anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life - are examples of what was new in Christ's teaching, and they're examples of what distinguishes our Christian belief and the Christian picture of God, from what went before.
The sayings apply first of all to Jesus himself. He was predicting his death. He was announcing that his mission on earth was going to culminate in his death, and that his readiness to die for the sake of the cause of God's Kingdom was revealing something essential about God's character.
You might remember how the disciples had resisted this suggestion, earlier on in Christ's ministry. They believed that when God sent his Messiah, the Messiah would sweep to success in a very worldly way. They thought that God's Kingdom would mean military victory and triumph in a worldly sense. The idea that God would reveal what he was like through service and non-violence and by surrendering himself to death was introducing them to a new and difficult teaching about God, something that was very difficult for them to take in.
So this image of the seed that has to die so as to yield a harvest first of all applies to Christ himself. But on top of that it also applies to his followers, to us.
If we were already perfect, morally and spiritually, we wouldn't have to talk about certain aspects of our nature having to die, or losing our life so as to find it. But we're not perfect, and inevitably there's an element of struggle and sacrifice in getting to know God better and living the way he wants us to.
The demands of Jesus' teaching are always having to compete against our more self-centred aspirations - all the plans and goals we set for ourselves in pursuing our own happiness. There are lots of motives and desires and preoccupations within us that have to die before God can come to life in us - or perhaps we might say that as God's life grows within us, all self-seeking and worldly motives gradually wither and die.
We see it in the lives of the great saints: the more God takes hold of a person, the more detached they become from all the worldly things that people believe it's perfectly reasonable and normal to want for themselves: money, comfort, security, good health, acceptance and approval of the people around us.
Those kinds of appetite die off as the hunger for God takes root and spreads. Although it's also true that there are lots of people who angrily give up their faith in God when it seems to demand that they surrender some of their worldly aims and ambitions.
Next Sunday is Palm Sunday and the start of Holy Week, when we commemorate Christ's last days on earth and his Passion and Death. The readings this Sunday move us closer to those events.
They introduce the idea of the Way of the Cross, the mystery at the heart of Christian faith and life which we're often in danger of overlooking. They try to show how Christ's acceptance of the Cross inaugurated the New Covenant between God and humanity which Jeremiah prophesied. And they remind us that if we're serious about finding God, sharing in the Paschal Mystery in some way will be an inevitable part of our life of faith.