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5th Sunday of Lent, Passiontide begins

08 March 2024

17 March, Jeremiah 31.31-34; Psalm 51.1-3 (or Psalm 119.9-16); Hebrews 5.5-10; John 12.20-33

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PASSOVER is the festival setting for words of Jesus which are full of premonition and (for the Christian, who knows where this is going) pathos. Lazarus has been raised. Jesus has proclaimed himself to be “the resurrection and the life” (11.25). He now explains what this will mean.

The first element in the unfolding scheme is the inclusion of the Gentiles, represented by “some Greeks” who come to see Jesus. The word used shows that they are not Greek-speaking Jews, but Gentiles. Their presence and their desire are all that we learn about them, and this meagre material might lead us to think that they are insignificant.

But it is not so. For Jesus, they are the sign that he has been waiting for. Their desire to “see” Jesus (which in John could mean physical vision or spiritual recognition) spurs him into the next stage of his mission. He responds by recognising that this is the moment when that begins.

The statement is dramatic, coming after three declarations that his hour “is not yet come” (2.4, 7.30, 8.20). First-time readers could be forgiven for thinking that it never was going to come. But now is the moment. He reveals that his glorification and death are bound together. “Death or glory” is a slogan among groups as diverse as military regiments and heavy-metal fans, but, for Jesus, it must be “death and glory”.

Just before this, the raising of Lazarus was first a proof of power, then a foretaste of the resurrection, in which all humankind will share. This promised resurrection protects us neither from the anguish of dying nor from the decay of our mortal bodies afterwards. Jesus’s death will be a real death; his lying in the tomb will be the real interment of a real corpse.

Here, Jesus uses a parable to express the meaning of death in terms akin to Paul’s (1 Corinthians 15.36-38). The seed dies in order to live, and to generate more life. Death and life become aspects of the same necessary process in the coming of a human individual to God. Fear besets so many people when they contemplate their own death (if they can bear to think of it at all). So, it is indispensable — for John, just as much as the other three Evangelists — to show that even Jesus, who has a relationship of perfect trust with his heavenly Father, feels fear in the face of death, and wishes that his end could be otherwise.

The Synoptics focus their version of this hard-won reassurance in the garden of Gethsemane. John locates it at the moment of the coming of the Gentiles, when a foretaste of the resurrection is revealed. Not even resurrection undoes human fear of the great unknown. We must give Jesus’s words, “Now my soul is troubled,” their natural sense, however tempting it is to skip to verse 27 with its forthright rejection of the option to ask the Father for another way.

“Glory” dominates this discourse about death. Through the crucifixion and resurrection, people will see anew the divine name, “I AM”, as relating to Father and Son. This has been the opaque message of the “I am” sayings of Jesus, but here it is clarified. If we wanted further confirmation that this passage — already so clear in its power and pathos — forms a climax within the Gospel as a whole, we have in it Jesus’s rejection of other paths: “No . . . Father, glorify your name!” At the moment of fulfilment, God speaks from heaven, and we hear his voice for the first time.

It is easy to miss this if we mentally fill in what God “should” have said in John’s account of Jesus’s baptism. There is also the voice at the transfiguration, a story that John leaves untold. God’s glorifying is a two-stage process: there is the glorifying that came through the incarnation, which John refers to as in the past (“we have seen”, 1.14); and there is the glorifying that is yet to come (“I will glorify it again”, 12.28).

Amid the coming cataclysm of the crucifixion, only those blessed and cursed with knowledge of good and evil — in other words, Christians (Genesis 2.17) — hear the message properly. For the rest, it is just a noise, terrifying, but devoid of meaning. Uncovering its meaning will become the task of John’s faithful readers in all the years that follow.

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