The text of St. John's Gospel for today's liturgy is important for the season in which we find ourselves. In the old days, before the Second Vatican Council, our churches would have draped purple shrouds around all the statues and crucifixes, leaving the crucifixes covered until the celebration of the Lord's Passion on Good Friday and the statues covered until the intonation of the "Glory to God" at the Easter Vigil. This custom was adopted to ritualize the statement in the Gospel that Jesus hid himself after asserting that he and the Father shared the same name: The Jews then said, 'You are not fifty yet, and you have seen Abraham!' Jesus replied: 'I tell you most solemnly, before Abraham ever was, I Am.' At this they picked up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself and left the Temple. (John 8:57-59)
This passage from the Gospel of St. John is one of many which point us toward the "high" Christology which characterizes so much of St. John's writing. While the other three evangelists were concerned with producing a narrative that would familiarize people with Jesus' life and ministry, his passion, death and resurrection, St. John was more concerned with offering a picture of Jesus which would bring people to believe that he was God in the flesh. For this reason St. John frequently quotes Jesus as saying, "I Am. . ." Ever since the incident known as the "burning bush" in the Book of Exodus, those two words have been used to designate the name of the Almighty, words that became so sacred in the minds of the children of Israel that they were never uttered aloud.
Chapter eight of the Gospel of St. John finds Jesus in conversation with Jews "who believed in him." (John 8:31b) Perhaps a better way to put it would be to say that they had believed in Jesus because it is obvious as the conversation develops that they no longer do. We know that the first century community saw a number of defections once it became evident that faith in Jesus created a perilous situation for the believer. The Jews had begun to expel those who accepted Jesus as the Messiah from the synagogues. Once they were no longer members of the synagogue, they no longer enjoyed the protection that Rome afforded to Jews. As the Roman Empire began to torture and execute people for their faith, some of those who had believed in Jesus turned their backs on their faith.
In many parts of the world just now, being a Christian is a dangerous situation. The news of late demonstrates that Christians are still being targeted for their faith in Syria and in other countries of the world. Being a Christian in China has never been an easy road. Just this past week, a Jesuit priest was murdered in Syria, a fact that the Holy Father lamented in his Wednesday audience this week.
As we come to the final week of our Lenten journey, we would not go amiss to offer our prayers and sacrifices for the sake of those whose faith is tested, for those who suffer for their faith, and for those who have lost their lives because of it. At the same time, we should also pray that our own faith would remain strong. We cannot take our own religious freedom for granted even in our own part of the world.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator