Father Donald Senior, CP

March 21: Fifth Sunday of Lent

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The end is near

Jer 31:31-34; Ps 51:3-4, 12-13, 14-15; Heb 5:7-9; Jn 12:20-33

This is the final Sunday in the season of Lent. Next week is Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week. As always, Lent seems to stretch out for a long time when we begin and then flashes by before we know it.

The readings for today have a dramatic flair appropriate for the solemn commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus we are on the brink of remembering. The tone is set by the selection from John’s Gospel. 

This scene comes in Chapter 12 at the very end of Jesus’ public ministry that is often called the “Book of Signs.” “Signs” is the distinctive term John uses to describe the miracles of Jesus that are laden with symbolic meaning. Parallel with our own liturgical season, the next chapter in John begins the farewell discourse of Jesus and leads into the account of his passion and death.

Jesus’ realization that his “hour had come” is triggered by some Greeks or Gentiles who approach Jesus’ disciples and ask to see Jesus. John’s Gospel hints at the universal scope of the Christian message that will break out into the world after the resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus speaks of his death with the kind of language also found in the other Gospels, saying that the grain of wheat must fall to ground and die before it can produce fruit. Paradoxically, one must be willing to lose one’s life to save it. In his beautiful exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis paraphrases these sayings of Jesus, writing, “We discover authentic life in giving it away.” 

For John’s Gospel, Jesus’ death is the ultimate act of love (“No greater love than this, than one lays down one’s life for a friend”). For Jesus’ executioners, crucifixion is an extreme and shameful deterrent for someone who is a public threat; for Jesus’ himself it is an act of love on behalf of the world. 

In this passage from John we have the last of the dramatic “lifting up” sayings. John’s Gospel alludes to the scene in Numbers 21:9, where to heal the people, Moses is instructed to lift up a bronze image of the deadly serpents that are plaguing the people. The evangelist sees an eerie connection to Jesus’ crucifixion because, when he is “lifted up” on the cross, Jesus declares that this act of love “will draw all people to myself.”

Today’s Gospel passage closes with a troubled prayer of Jesus. Most interpreters consider this John’s version of Jesus’ anguished prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of his arrest, when Jesus prays that his father might deliver him from the terrible ordeal he is about to face (“Father, save me from this hour”).

This is an unprecedented glimpse of the humanity of Jesus; he fears a violent death like all of us would. But in all four Gospels (and, in a similar tradition, from the Letter to the Hebrews that is the second reading for today), Jesus’ ultimate trust in God’s love and mercy overcomes the fear of death that stabs at his heart.

This is the final message of the readings for this climactic Lenten Sunday. Death looms on the horizon. But far more powerful than the threat of death is God’s overwhelming love and mercy — for Jesus and for us.  

The first reading from Jeremiah and the response Psalm 51 proclaim the fundamental conviction of our Scriptures and our Christian faith that our God is a God of mercy who wants to forge a “new covenant” with his people: “I will be their God and they shall be my people. … All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the Lord, for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.”

The response psalm shapes what should be our prayer today: “Create a clean heart in me, O God. Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.” 

The great mystic John of the Cross summed it up: “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.” The love we are talking about is God’s love for us.


  • scripture