Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Rumble of Thunder?

This Sunday's Gospel [John 12:20-33] has always had something sort of haunting about it for me and this year I guess it presents me with a special challenge:

Among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. These approached Philip, who came from Bethsaida in Galilee, and put this request to him, ‘Sir, we should like to see Jesus.’ Philip went to tell Andrew, and Andrew and Philip together went to tell Jesus. Jesus replied to them: ‘Now the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you, most solemnly, unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest. Anyone who loves his life loses it; anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for the eternal life. If a man serves me, he must follow me, wherever I am, my servant will be there too. If anyone serves me, my Father will honour him. Now my soul is troubled. What shall I say: Father, save me from this hour? But it was for this very reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name!’ A voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ People standing by, who heard this, said it was a clap of thunder; others said, ‘It was an angel speaking to him.’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not for my sake that this voice came, but for yours. ‘Now sentence is being passed on this world; now the prince of this world is to be overthrown. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all men to myself.’ By these words he indicated the kind of death he would die.

What bothers me is the judgment element in the reading, the pronouncement that now in Christ sentence is being passed on this world and that the prince of this world is to be overthrown. What do you do with that? I call it haunting, because, at least for this historical moment, I'm not and I don't think most Catholics are fully embracing this reality. It is obvious from the Lord's own words that what is intended is quite definitive, but nevertheless something different than the Last Judgment; it is something already in force, having come to pass, punctuated or underlined by what some thought was a thunder clap and others the voice of an angel. 

The words of Jesus seem to have been sparked by the announcement that there were Greeks who wanted to see Him. The efficacy of Christ's being lifted up unto victory is universal; He draws all men to Himself upon the Cross. For you and for me today, the days have passed since this particular Gospel scene, Jesus has already been lifted up on the Cross and has drawn all men to himself; the hour has passed in that He has brought it to completion. God's name has been glorified in Christ.

What is haunting about this Gospel is that it proclaims all as consummated through Christ's prophecy and the expression of the Father's will and yet much of the Church still stands there two millennia later in a back and forth aside, over whether that was thunder they heard or an angel's voice. 

Once again this year, Lent is coming swiftly to a close; we are about to embark on Passiontide; the Cross becomes our focus right through next week's Palm Sunday and Holy Week. The grain of wheat dies to yield a fruitful harvest. Jesus tells those standing around Him that His soul is troubled by the trial which stands immediately before Him, from this terrible hour of suffering and death for the sake of the life of the world.

I don't know if I can count it a joy or blessing of my life, but over my years of priesthood I cannot say that I have ever been close to anyone caught up in one of many possible forms of clerical careerism: big pastorate, monsignorate, bishop's office. I can honestly say that I've never lost sleep over the honors which have come my way in the service of the Holy See. For me and I think for most priests and bishops, the drama or lack thereof would center more on a certain resignation in the face of Christ's victory, hearing rather the thunder clap and missing the angel's voice. We lack that discovery, that recognition, that fire to be shared with others, one far surpassing Joel Osteen's glad tidings on self-improvement unto worldly satisfaction and sunshiny days.

What haunts me is the question of why this might be so. Why are we not drawn confidently to Christ lifted up on the Cross, to the wood whereby we are saved, not just in a rhetorical sense, but really saved for all that matters? A couple weeks back, people failed to get excited about the publication of a new Vatican directory on preaching. Why this seeming skepticism about the possibility of stirring people to hope? We read from the history of the Middle Ages of the repeated successes of any number of Mendicant preachers; we hear about the preaching of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, which put Europe on the march to reclaim the Holy Land for Christianity; the cause for the sanctification of St. Vincent of Lerins documents the countless baptisms, confessions and reforms of life which followed upon his preaching. For me it boils down to whether you are thinking thunder or the voice of an angel.

The object of conversion, of claiming Christ's victory on the Cross for ourselves, is the heart. In a sense, we walk away from a world condemned and turn our backs on the prince of this world, Satan, who has been long since and definitively cast out. The utopia of a Christendom in all its glory does not take center stage. The troubled heart of Christ in His great hour lives within our hearts. Even so, we know that what we heard wasn't just thunder. Ash Wednesday's message and command never loses a bit of its poignancy or verve: "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel!" Claim your deliverance from the glorious heights of Calvary!


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