by Br Julian McDonald cfc
Some Greeks approached Philip: “Sir, we want to see Jesus. Can you help us?” Philip went and told Andrew. Andrew and Philip together went and told Jesus. Jesus replied: “The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground and dies, it is nothing more than a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds onto life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.” John 12, 20-33
We know enough about John’s Gospel to appreciate that its author doesn’t use words idly or waste them. So why does today’s gospel-reading open with some visiting Greeks approaching a disciple with a Greek name to seek the favour of a privileged introduction to Jesus? They choose a ploy that has been used since Adam was a boy: “If we can find a one-talk, he’ll use his influence to get us in the side door. We’ll be able to skip the line.” There’s probably some truth in that. However, I suggest there is more to it, and the clue lies in Jesus’ response to Andrew and Philip: “The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Listen carefully: Unless the grain of wheat is buried in the ground and dies…”.
One wonders why the Greek visitors wanted an introduction to Jesus. Perhaps it was out of curiosity. Perhaps they had heard of his reputation for curing the sick and infirm. Maybe, they had seen evidence of the impact on ordinary people of his wisdom and teaching. But the response Jesus gave to the overtures made by the Greeks and the request put to him on their behalf by Andrew and Philip made it clear that he was not interested in fame and had no desire to be put up on a pedestal. Rather, his words were a veiled pointer to a future when he would be put up on a cross.
The Greeks reflect to us something of ourselves. We can all recall times of prayer, reflection and bursts of enthusiasm when we wanted to get close to the person of Jesus, to know him better, to walk in his footsteps. We can all remember echoing, in one way or another, the words of those Greeks: “We wish to see Jesus.” But, perhaps our enthusiasm and desire faltered when we actually came to see Jesus in his true colours. – one who expects of us honesty, compassion, generosity, selflessness, integrity, fidelity and the like. Maybe we baulked when we saw a Jesus who was troubled at the prospect of torture and execution, who felt like abandoning his mission because of the personal cost involved, and who, as today’s second reading from Hebrews tells us, “cried out in pain and wept in sorrow as he offered up priestly prayers to God” (Hebrews 5, 7).
It’s not uncommon to find the words “We wish to see Jesus” inscribed on the inside of Church pulpits as a reminder to homilists that they have a serious responsibility to reflect in their words and actions to the people in front of them something of the person and message of Jesus.
On the inside of the pulpit of St Michael’s Uniting Church in Collins Street Melbourne, one can see inscribed the words “We wish to see Jesus”. A story is told of a minister who was invited to preach there one Sunday morning. When he stepped into the pulpit and was confronted with those words, he responded immediately with: “Oh, sorry, I’m not Jesus; I’m not even the apostle Andrew!” With that, he went and sat in the front pew and folded his arms. It took some minutes for members of the congregation to convince the visitor that they still wanted him to deliver his homily. However, he did not return to the pulpit. Instead, he took his place behind a simple lectern.
All of us Christians, worthy of the name, have a responsibility to reflect, in our words and actions to one another and to everyone we encounter, something of the person and the Gospel of Jesus. Many of us are surely familiar with one of the dismissal prayers proclaimed to us by the priest at the conclusion of Mass: “Go now, in peace, glorifying God by your life.”
Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated as he stood at the altar after giving a homily on today’s gospel reading. As late as three years before his death, Romero had been described as “a quiet, pious, conservative cleric” who was unable to challenge the injustices being pursued by the government of his country, El Salvador. One of Romero’s biographers, the Catholic peace activist, John Dear described him in these words: “As Bishop, he sided with the greedy landlords, important power-brokers and violent death squads.” However, Romero experienced a profound conversion of heart when a priest friend, Rutilio Grande, who was working among the poor, was executed by agents of the Salvadoran government. Deep within, Romero heard the voice of God urging him to speak out: “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead, I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’” He later described his conversion as “a development of the same desire I have always had to be faithful to what God asks of me.” (Celeste Kennel-Shank, “Oscar Romero’s Grain of Wheat”, The Christian Century, March 2015)
Benedictine tradition and spirituality are rich in insights for living and keeping in touch with God, with Jesus. In their monastery in Monte Casino, Italy, is a fresco that depicts the virtue of obedience as a listening ear. Indeed, the very word “obedience” is derived from the Latin verb obaudire meaning “to listen”.
Today’s reading from Hebrews states that Jesus learned trusting obedience to God by listening deeply to his own suffering, discovering its meaning and being courageous enough to follow the path along which it was leading, ‘just as we do. Then, having arrived at the full stature of his maturity…he became the source of eternal salvation to all who believingly obey him” (Hebrews 5, 8-10). Romero, too, learned obedience to follow the path along which Jesus was inviting him. Knowing what had happened to his friend for accompanying the poor, Romero could have become more fearful, more intent on saving his own life. Instead, he chose to allow God to keep shaping him into the person he dreamed of becoming, and knew, deep down, that God was inviting him to become. In his final homily, Romero had said: “One must not love oneself so much as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us. Those who try to fend off the danger will lose their lives. Those who, out of love for Christ, give themselves to the service of others will live (and die?) like the grain of wheat.”
Let’s leave the last word to the prophet Micah: “This is what God asks of you: only this, to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6, 8).