This is the last Sunday before Holy Week, and the readings anticipate Jesus suffering and ultimate triumph.
‘Jeremiah lived through one of the most troubled periods of the Ancient Near East.’ (Guy P. Couturier, CSC) Consequently, his prophecies were often urgent warnings and calls to repentance; for example, he foresaw the Exile of the Hebrews to Babylon, then saw this happen. Our selection today from late in the book gives a more positive outlook with the promise of a new and better covenant, a prophecy which will be taken up and interpreted by Christians. We will hear on Holy Thursday the words of Jesus setting up the ‘new and everlasting covenant’ when he takes bread and wine at the Last Supper – and of course we hear this at every Mass.
The final words give us the comfort of knowing God is always at hand to teach us how to follow his way and as well to forgive us when we fail in our attempts.
Psalm 50:3-4, 13-15
The prayer for mercy and a new heart and spirit gives us, as it were, our side to the promise in Jeremiah. Relying on the promise of God’s loving care and forgiveness, our part is to ask for a change of heart.
Letter to the Hebrews 5:7-9
The author of this letter is unknown, although in the past it was attributed to St Paul. Its central point is that the old covenant made with Moses at Sinai has been replaced by the sacrifice of Jesus, and the old priesthood by the new and everlasting priesthood of Christ. There is later in this book a quotation from the Jeremiah passage above with an explanation of how Jesus fulfils the prophecy (Hebrews chapters 8-9). We have only a few verses from the Letter today, but one which offers some background to what we will read in John. However, there is a slight difference in emphasis, for the author of Hebrews has been explaining that Jesus underwent temptations as we do, and therefore is able to sympathize with our weaknesses.
The entreaty ‘aloud and in silent prayer and tears’ may be a reference to Jesus in Gethsemane – which is in the first three gospels, but not in John. It has puzzled some that the author says Christ’s prayer to be saved from death ‘was heard’ when he did go on to die on the cross. The writer probably means the Resurrection was the answer to Jesus’ prayer, for having gone through death, he triumphed through that to the new life he lives ‘interceding for us in heaven’ (Hebrews 7:25).
This is a comparatively short speech of Jesus for the Gospel of John but is not without some complexities. The setting is Jesus’ final Passover in Jerusalem. John writes of several times that Jesus comes up for this feast while the other three gospels have only the one at the end of his life. Immediately preceding this section in John is the ‘Palm Sunday’ entry procession where the crowds acclaim Jesus as the one they have been awaiting – in John the title they use is ‘King of Israel.’ (An account of his coming to Jerusalem appears in all four gospels and we will hear Mark’s version next week.)
Next is mention of some other visitors for the feast, called ‘Greeks’ (Hellenes) and this indicates that they are not Jewish, although they would have had some attraction to the Jewish religion, and are observing at least parts of it. Philip is a Greek name and this combined with his coming from a town near Gentile territory would be a reason why he was approached by these pilgrims. They represent the Gentiles who will come to Jesus as part of the new community after his death. In the earlier part of his ministry, Jesus had emphasized his coming to Israel and it will only be after his resurrection that the gospel will come to the rest of the world. Since the story of Cana (John 2;4) it was said several times that Jesus’ hour ‘has not yet come’, but now he declares that it is here. After his death, his message will go out beyond the Jews of Galilee and Judah, and thus the Greeks coming to him symbolizes the end of his geographically limited ministry and the beginning of the Passion that will ‘draw all’ to Jesus. Our translation of ‘all men’ is not precise as the Greek has just ‘all’ in the plural that could indicate ‘all people’, that is including non-Jews. There is another possible interpretation that ‘all’ means the whole of creation, like the vision of St Paul which sees everything coming to fullness in the future that Christ and the Spirit will bring (Romans 8:19-25).
For John, the ‘glorification’ of Jesus begins on the cross, in what seems the lowest moment of his humiliation in human terms. He has previously told his disciples that they will have some share in the cross as well as the ultimate glory, so that is called to mind as well. The symbol of the grain of wheat is one that would be easily understood in people close to a farming economy and is a comparison also used with some differences in the first three gospels. A farmer gives up some of the crop of grain to be used as seed and from one of these seeds will grow a plant with many grains. There are several reflections we could take from this, as is true of many of Jesus’ sayings. At its simplest, his death will be life for many. It may also connect with his last ‘discourse’ in John on Holy Thursday in which Jesus says it is better for his disciples that he passes from his historic, individual life accessible only to few, to his glorified life when he sends the Spirit into the hearts of all his followers in all places and times.
The words, ‘my soul is troubled’ and ‘shall I say, save me from this hour?’ are seen by some commentators as John’s hint of the Gethsemane prayer, a scene John does not record. In John, Jesus is nearly always seen as in full command, almost at times as in his post-resurrection ‘glory’, so the answer of Jesus comes swiftly: it is the Father’s will and his own obedience that has brought him into the world to go to his death.
It puzzles most commentators that we have words from the voice from heaven, and that Jesus says they have come for the benefit of those around him. But if that is the case, why do the bystanders think it is thunder or an angel? My interpretation: at least the disciples must have understood, but those whose minds were closed to Jesus’ message could easily have blocked them out. Something similar happens in ordinary life: one may speak, maybe in warning, but because the words are unwelcome or hard to understand, they immediately slip past the intended hearer– ‘go in one ear and out the other’. Some of the crowd may have been open to Jesus, but it is immediately clear that others are already plotting how to destroy him and do not want any heavenly voice affirming Jesus.
To be lifted up’: John explains, as he did last week, this means on the cross where the saving power of his love and death will be the call to all to come to Jesus, but as well means his Resurrection, being ‘lifted up’ the Father.