by f. Luis CASASUS, General Superior of the men’s branch of the Idente missionaries.
Madrid, March 21, 2021.| Fifth Sunday of Lent.
Book of Jeremiah 31: 31-34; Letter to the Hebrews 5: 7-9; Saint John 12: 20-33.
Affirming or denying the existence of God is not the most important thing for human beings. It is not our first need. It is not a priority. In fact, many people are persuaded of God’s existence, but at the same time they have the impression that He lives “his existence”… and we live ours. What is more important, much more decisive is the possibility of having an intimate relationship with Him, which, in fact, is what the Greeks were looking for in today’s Gospel text.
What is an intimate relationship with God? Perhaps the following story will help to understand it.
When Count Nicholas Zinzendorf (1700-1760) was a young man, he had an experience in an art gallery that changed his life forever. He was born an aristocrat and had always known wealth and luxury, and he was an extremely gifted individual. Zinzendorf had been reared and trained for a diplomatic career in the Court at Dresden. One day he visited an art gallery in Dusseldorf. There he caught sight of a painting of the crucified Jesus called “Ecce Homo.” The artist had written two short lines in Latin beneath the painting: This is what I did for you: what have you done for me?.
When his eyes met the eyes of the thorn-crowned Saviour, he was filled with a sense of shame. He could not answer that question in a manner which would satisfy his own conscience. He stayed there for hours, looking at the painting of the Christ on the cross until the light failed. And when the time arrived for the gallery to be closed, he was still staring at the face of Christ, trying in vain to find an answer to the question of what he had done for Christ. He left the gallery at nightfall, but a new day was dawning for him. From that day on, he devoted his heart and soul, his life and his wealth -all he had- to Christ, declaring, I have but one passion; it is Jesus, Jesus only.
Today’s Gospel clearly explains this intimate relationship with God. Jesus explains it to the Greeks, who were not simply curious to know him, but sought to give their lives a full and firm meaning. It is also what happens to us, to every human being.You perceive it in the depths of your heart: all that is good on earth, all professional success, even the human love that you dream of, can never fully satisfy your deepest and most intimate desires. Only an encounter with Jesus can give full meaning to your lives: For you made us for yourself, and our heart finds no peace until it rests in you (Saint Augustine).
It is not simply coming to a solid conclusion, or even having an experience that produces a radical change in my life. It is about being sure that our life is productive at every single moment, that we are giving to others at every single time what they really need, that we could not do any better. It would be difficult to follow the path suggested by Christ if he had merely indicated and urged people to follow it. The Letter to the Hebrews answers our doubts and uncertainties, recalling a truth easily forgotten: we are not alone in this journey; Jesus accompanies us and He traveled that path before us.
Our state of unity with Christ enables us to respond with agility in every circumstance, without being paralyzed by fear or passion. This is something beyond our strength. This is something that many works of art have reflected as something admirable, not only for Christians.
When we cooperate with His grace, we share in His glory, the fullness of life and joy. The joy of helping others live and be closer to God is greater than just attending to our own interests and happiness.
For example, in the in the Swedish movie, Jerusalem (1996), which portrays peasant life in that nation around the turn of the 20th century; a devout lay leader in the community named Ingmar, sees two small children trapped on a raft quickly driven down a fast-flowing river. The water is ice-cold, and everyone but Ingmar stands helplessly on the riverbank, watching the children face their impending deaths. However, against all odds and advice of the passive bystanders, Ingmar jumps into the river and saves the children. Unfortunately, a floating log smashes into him, stunning him as he sinks under the water. Somehow he struggles back to shore safely.
However, the ice-cold water had already done its damage, along with the floating log. Ingmar becomes ill and then dies. Ingmar, unlike everyone else passively watching, was willing to count the cost by taking the risk of losing his life to save the lives of the two children.
Ingmar is a Christ figure in this movie insofar as he chose Christ’s way of the cross; of gaining life by losing life; of giving life in sacrificial love for the benefit of others. With Christ’s help, this is possible in ordinary or critical moments, in a spectacular or discreet way, but always with the certainty of being living in fullness.
However, in the Gospel, in the people we meet and in our personal lives, we are content to have sterile and wasted encounters with Jesus. How is it possible for an encounter with Jesus to remain fruitless? Of course, examples abound.
Herod send the Three Wise Men to see Jesus and to tell him later. Pilate asked Him, What is Truth? Truth was in front of him and did not really see Jesus, the Truth, the Way and Life. The Rich Young Man came running to Jesus to be with Him, but when he saw the demands involved in following Jesus he went away.
Is there anything that decides whether our encounter with Jesus will be fruitful or sterile, decisive or fleeting, a source of joy or pure anecdote? The answer lies in Christ’s statement today: 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 is using the word Amen twice in succession, “Verily, verily, I say to you…”. This shows us that what Jesus is about to say is true and certainly important.. It is a solemn affirmation.
For many of us this is surprising, not only because of the demand and the bluntness of the answer, but because we would rather expect to hear from Jesus a method, a technique, a way of performing actions, which would give fullness to our life. However, his answer, in a word, is abnegation, or self-denial or detachment.
Not only our defects and temptations, but our cares and obligations can divert our attention from what is the authentic will of God. The first step of abnegation is to say “no” to the tyranny of our judgments, desires and instincts, but the important thing is to do it with the intention, the desire and the certainty that in this way the divine will is fulfilled.
Let me express it with a little story, whose moral each of us can draw from.
A young woman was mountain climbing with friends. During her ascent, her safety rope slipped and the jerking motion dislodged one of her contact lenses. She was able to reach the summit, but to her dismay, her view was blurred because of having only one well-focused eye. Her response was to ask God for help. The young woman thought, “Lord, You can see all these mountains. You know every stone and leaf and You know exactly where my contact lens is. Please help me.”
As they continued their journey, the climbers met another group. A hiker called out, “Hey, come look at this!” When the young woman and her friends drew closer, they witnessed a very interesting sight. They looked to see an ant on a twig, facing the mountain, carrying her contact lens! Needless to say, all were astonished.
The young lady’s father was a cartoonist and draw a picture of the ant with a precious caption: Lord, I don’t know why You want me to carry this thing. I can’t eat it, and it’s awfully heavy. But, if this is what you want for me to do, I’ll carry it for You.
The ant teaches we had no control over our circumstances nor could we predict the outcomes. Yet, we should continue to move forward with God and in God.
Why is true abnegation so difficult for us? Many answers can be given, depending on whether we look at our spiritual, psychological or somatic dimension. But for a disciple of Christ, the clearest proof of living authentic Abnegation is communion with others, with those close to us, not “with humanity” in the abstract.
This should make us understand that Abnegation is not passive, it is not a form of repression or inactivity. Like the seed, it is about opening ourselves completely to others, in the midst of incomprehension ( theirs and mine), of inopportunity, of interruptions, of possible disappointments ….. This is how the seed is opened to the sun, to the humidity, to the soil. The Holy Spirit is ready in a special way to bless this abnegation, like that of so many mothers and fathers who do not receive the gratitude of their children and yet do not cease to care for them in all respects.
The message of abnegation and communion that Jesus reminds us of today is universal in space and time, but St. John Paul II emphasized its value in our times:
To make the Church the home and school of communion: that is the great challenge facing us in the millennium which is now beginning, if we wish to be faithful to God’s plan and respond to the world’s deepest yearnings(Novo Millennio Ineunte, 43).
Having received God’s favors, we too must now do the same. We share in Jesus’ mission to give glory to the Father. Giving up our lives for the service of others is the way to glorify the Father. People might not believe in God but everyone desires love and compassion. So by witnessing to the world our love and compassion, they will come to know the love of God and thus the wish expressed by the Greeks in today’s Gospel will be fulfilled: to truly see Jesus. And to this end, as happened to Philip, we can be the ones to draw them to Christ.
Let us end this reflection with a story of oriental flavor, to understand how easily we forget what abnegation is (not simply working hard) when it comes to living with our fellowmen:
There is a story that a person consulted a spiritual teacher to help him feel better about his life. He told the master he had many, many problems, and proceeded to enumerate them: his wife had left him, his daughter was on drugs, his boss was a tyrant, his parents demanding, his coworkers were too insensitive… as he listed his problems he counted them up, and at the end he said: No wonder I’m miserable. Look, I counted that I have 19 problems! The teacher disagreed, replying: No, you have 20 problems. The person asked: Did I miscount? I thought it was 19. The master replied: Your 20th and hardest problem is that you you think you should not have problems with others.