Fifth Sunday of Lent

15 March 2018

Jeremiah 31.31-34; Psalm 51.1–13; Hebrews 5.5-10; John 12.20-33

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CALLY HAMMOND writes of two different ways in which we must engage with the story of the Passion: we need to read it “from the inside, imaginatively”, walking with Jesus through the pain and turmoil of Holy Week; but it is also important to “take a step back” and reflect on these events “dis-passionately”, understanding their place in the story of salvation (Passionate Christianity: A journey to the Cross).

This Sunday’s readings help us to take that “step back” before we enter Holy Week. They offer us a threefold understanding of the Passion: as the act through which God reveals the nature of his love, reconciles humanity to himself, and restores his just and peaceable reign.

Each theme is present in our Gospel reading. When some Gentiles approach Philip, saying, “Sir, we want to see Jesus,” the Lord’s response is to speak about being “lifted up”. This is the heart of his mission. The humiliation of the cross is the decisive revelation of God’s love for the world, through which “the Father’s name” is “glorified”.

In an echo of Gethsemane, Jesus declares that his “soul is troubled”. He goes on to embrace the sacrifice ahead: “What should I say — ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” As St Ephrem observes: “He did not ask for delivery from death, nor demand to be resurrected after his death, because this had been promised to him earlier; but he prayed for his crucifiers, that they might live in him.”

It is this sacrifice that makes possible our reconciliation. In revealing God’s love for the world, it elicits a saving response of faith. In Jesus’s words: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” This reconciliation is foreshadowed in our Old Testament reading — the only place in the Hebrew scriptures in which a “new covenant” is explicitly promised. Jeremiah proclaims that God will initiate a new and direct relationship with each of his children.

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Besides breaking down the barriers between God and his people, the cross breaks down the divisions between Jew and Gentile. This is foreshadowed at the start of Sunday’s Gospel. It is Gentiles who ask to see Jesus — quite possibly prompted by the scene (in the immediately preceding verses) in which the Jewish crowd hails him as their Messiah. In St Augustine’s words, we see “those of the circumcision and those of the uncircumcision, once so wide apart, coming together like two walls and meeting in the one faith of Christ by the kiss of peace”.

The cross both reveals God’s love and brings reconciliation to fallen humanity. But there is more: if we focus only on these aspects, we evade the spiritual battle at the heart of Holy Week. There is a third element: Jesus’s death is also an act of restoration. In his words, it is “the judgement of this world” in which “the ruler of this world will be driven out.” The cross wins the decisive victory over the forces of evil and death; it proclaims and restores God’s reign.

When injustice and violence so often seem to have the upper hand, what does it mean to proclaim that Jesus has “driven out” the powers of evil? James Alison offers a striking metaphor: it is as if we lived in Albania in 1989, and had received news of the fall of the Berlin Wall. “You know exactly what this means: the beast which ran your lives is mortally wounded.”

The very act of celebrating the victory helps to rob the beast of its remaining power: “Something has been undone, somewhere else, and this means that you don’t need to undo it yourself. Your rejoicing in its being already done is part of what universalises the undoing — so that you do find yourself participating in the undoing, but as a recipient who is spreading the effect” (Worship in a Violent World).

At every eucharist, and especially in the liturgies that lie ahead in Holy Week, we are engaged in such an act: celebrating a victory already won, and participating in the outworking of that triumph. In those liturgies, we will enter imaginatively into the paschal mystery. This Sunday’s readings show us the place of those events in the wider story of salvation — as God’s decisive act of revelation, reconciliation, and restoration.

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