A seemingly insignificant event in the life of Jesus leads us into the Paschal mystery as we begin the part of Lent that we call Passiontide. “Some Greeks. . . came to Philip, . . . and asked him, ‘Sir, we would like to see Jesus.’” At first reading, this incident seems to be open ended. What happened to those people? Did they get to see Jesus? The Gospel doesn’t seem to answer our questions. Instead, Jesus launches into another of his long soliloquies. “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.”
At first it seems as if there is little or no connection between the visit of these travelers from Greece and the soliloquy that follows. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus has insisted that he was called first to the lost children of Israel. Though he has ventured into Tyre and Sidon, into the Decapolis and Samaria, the vast majority of his time was spent among his own people. When a Syro-Phoenician woman approaches him asking for a favor, he is reticent to even acknowledge her presence. However, things are about to change, and Jesus is aware of that. The barrier between Jew and Gentile is going to be completely obliterated by his suffering and death and resurrection.
Through the wonders of time lapse photography, we have actually seen what happens to a seed when it falls into the ground and germinates. First, the seed casing cracks and the tender tendrils which had been encased in the hard shell are allowed to find their way to the surface where they poke through and reach toward the sun while roots travel in the opposite direction seeking moisture and nourishment. Even though time lapse photography was not available when the Gospel was written, this rural, agrarian culture was well aware of how seeds germinated. The seed casing could only crack if the seed fell into the ground.
Symbolically, the new covenant begun in Jesus could only reach beyond the borders of Israel after the barrier separating them was broken down. The Gospel records this graphically as the veil of the Temple was torn down the middle at the moment that Jesus gave his spirit into the hands of his Father. There would no longer be a barrier between God and the Gentiles. Jesus realizes this as soon as Philip comes to him to tell him that some Greeks had come to see Jesus. These visitors have set the final act of the drama in motion.
The first reading from the Prophet Jeremiah continues in our Lenten consideration of the covenant that God has made with us. We have heard of the covenant made with Noah as well as the covenant made with Abraham and Moses. Last week, we heard how God tried to resettle the people of Israel after the Babylonian captivity. This week we listen to Jeremiah tell of the new covenant that God intends to enter into with us. This time the conditional statement of that covenant, the “if” and the “then” are removed. “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” God expresses love for humankind unconditionally. Nothing that we do and nothing that happens to us will separate us from God. No barrier of race or place of ethnic origin will stand between people of this new covenant.
The covenant relationship between God and us has always been a blood covenant. For our ancestors, blood was life. Shedding the blood of a bullock, a sheep or a goat was an essential part of creating a covenant relationship. Life with God happened only after something died to seal that covenant. The new covenant takes this element of making a covenant to new boundaries in that it demands the blood of God’s own Son. Both the Gospel and the Letter to the Hebrews attest to the fact that Jesus struggled with this idea. Though the Gospel of St. John does not record an agony in the Garden, today we hear Jesus tell us that he is troubled by this idea. However, he also realizes that this is why he came into the world, this was his mission, the mission given him by his Father and which would result in glory for both him and for the Father. So too, we are called upon to give our lives in service, in compliance with God’s will for us. For like Jesus, our lives will also bear much fruit if we die to self and follow Jesus to the cross.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator