Ps 50(51):3-4, 12-15.
Link to readings.
As we enter upon the final weeks of Lent, the Lectionary sets before us readings that focus more strictly upon the death that Jesus is to undergo in Jerusalem and the meaning of that death for the world.
The First Reading, from Jer 31:31-34, features a passage destined to become very significant in the New Testament tradition. Faced with the failure of the people in respect to the original Sinai covenant, the prophet Jeremiah records the divine intent to forge a “new covenant” with the house of Israel and Judah. The difference between this covenant and the former one will be that, instead of laws and requirements written on tablets of stone and so imposed on human beings “from outside”, as it were, this will be a covenant “written” deep in people’s hearts. Not only will they know its requirements, they will also have the capacity to observe them willingly in the context of a renewed and intimate relationship with God.
St. Paul sees this promise fulfilled in the gift of the Spirit (2 Cor 3:3-6; Rom 8:2). Likewise, the accounts of the institution of the Eucharist, in their Pauline (1 Cor 11:23-25) and Lukan (Luke 22:19-20) form, have Christ say over the cup, “this is ... the new covenant in my blood”. The shedding of Christ’s blood on Calvary inaugurates the “new covenant” of which Jeremiah spoke; believers of subsequent generations re-enact their entry into that new covenant and receive its benefits each time that they fulfil the Lord’s command, “Do this in memory of me”.
A tradition running across the New Testament brings out the personal cost to Jesus of undergoing the death he endured to bring us into this new covenant. It does so by portraying a moment of shrinking on his part from going through with it. The most dramatic portrayal of this motif comes in the three Synoptic accounts of Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prays for a time to his Father that the “cup” held out before him be removed (Matt 26:36-39; Mark 14:33-36; Luke 22:40-44).
The short extract from Hebrews (5:7-9) in the Second Reading contains an echo of the same tradition. As a sense of the divinity of Christ increased in the early Church tradition the memory of a very human shrinking from death on his part might well have been suppressed. That it was preserved alongside the growing sense of his status as divine Son of God was doubtless because it enshrined so precious a truth. That Jesus found what was required of him so costly as to lead him to beg that it be removed witnessed to the extremity of his love. Every believer can, then, make their own the words of Paul: “(He) loved me and delivered himself up for me” (Gal 2:20).
In what way did Christ “learn obedience through what he suffered” (Heb 5:8)? The sense of this odd phrase seems to be that it was in his passion that Christ plumbed to the depth what obedience to his mission from the Father involved. Being Son did not shield him from suffering. On the contrary, by going through with his suffering and death he paid the cost of being faithful to who he was precisely as his Father’s Son.
The Gospel, John 12:20-33, contains a momentary Johannine echo of the same motif in the Fourth Gospel. Jesus exclaims, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’?” (v. 27). What sparks off this reaction in Jesus—and the parable about the grain of wheat that precedes it (v. 24)— is the arrival on the scene of “some Greeks”. The reason that Jesus reacts in this way can be seen from the end of the passage when he says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”, together with the comment of the evangelist, “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die” (vv. 32-33). The “Greeks” are the forerunners of all those people from afar (including the Gentile world) whom the love of Jesus, demonstrated supremely upon the cross, will draw to the Father and so to eternal life. The arrival of these Greeks and their desire to “see” Jesus indicates that the “hour” of his death is at hand. Their presence also shows that his dying, like a single grain falling upon the earth, will produce a “rich harvest”, that is, the drawing of all to eternal life. In this way the cross will overthrow the ruinous grip of the “prince of this world” (Satan) upon human life.
We can detect a hint of the mission of the later church as, first Andrew, then Philip, “mediate” the access of these Gentiles to Jesus.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media