Lesson relearned: Through death to life

Given by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde for the Fifth Sunday of Lent and the blessing of the door, windows and Stations at the Sacred Heart of Mary Chapel at Marymount University in Arlington.

One of the characteristics of a good teacher is his or her ability to explain complex realities in a way that students can understand. The Gospels show us that Jesus Christ modeled this method perfectly.

In His preaching, we find parables, analogies, and similes that use language and examples from everyday life to speak of human and divine realities, of truth and morality and of mystery and salvation. Today's Gospel is no different. In it, we hear Jesus say, "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" (cf. Jn 12:24).

The people of Israel were familiar with the growing of wheat, and thus we hear Jesus referencing it many times in His preaching, such as in the parable of the sower and the seed and in the parable of the weeds and the wheat. Even though most of us living in urban and suburban areas are far removed from agricultural life, we still understand how a seed becomes a plant with roots, a stalk and fruit: only when it is buried in the ground. In that process, new life explodes from a seed that was once small, hard and dry. A seed is destroyed, and a new plant takes its place.

Although His disciples may not have understood, Jesus uses this powerful image to foretell His Passion, Death and Resurrection. Before bringing forth new life on Easter morning, the body of Jesus, like the seed, must first be destroyed through a crown of thorns, nails, the cross and a spear and then laid in the earth.

Reflecting on the suffering of Jesus is a vital part of the Lenten season. While the Stations of the Cross, which we blessed before Mass, are prayerfully relived throughout the liturgical year, they have a place of privilege during the Lenten season as they remind us of the agony and suffering which Jesus took on for our salvation. Our meditation on the events depicted in these stations is not simply to stir our hearts to sadness, although certainly we are moved to sorrow for our sins and to pity for Him as we trace Our Lord's journey to Crucifixion on Calvary. Meditation on the Passion and Death of Jesus must also stir our hearts with the deepening awareness that we are loved. So loved are we that Jesus willingly goes to the Cross for our sake. He becomes the grain of wheat that dies so that we all might live here with purpose and have unending abundant life in heaven. The images on the stations around this chapel remind us that we are truly loved by God!

And the saints, the blessed and the holy men and women depicted in our new stained-glass windows also knew how much loved they were and so lived their lives rooted in this amazing reality: God so loves each human person!

As a teacher, Jesus also offers us an example of what it means to become that grain of wheat. Certainly, He gives us the example of His Passion, Death and Resurrection. But He also gives us the example of the spiritual dying to self, that is, completely offering oneself in confident trust to the will of God. The obedience of Jesus Christ to His Father's Will led the author of the Letter to the Hebrews to write, "Son though He was, He learned obedience from what He suffered; and when He was made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him" (cf. Heb 5:8-9). As Jesus obeyed the Father, we too must die to ourselves and obey the Father revealed by His Son.

In the final weeks of Lent, we are called to reflect on how we can die more to ourselves and our own will, that is, how can we hand over more of our time and effort to obey and to carry out the will of the Lord. Perhaps it is dedicating more of our free time to prayer, or to our responsibilities here at Marymount. Perhaps it is almsgiving or volunteering to serve the needy. Perhaps it is to become more involved with people and less so with our smart phones and electronic tablets. Jesus tells us, "Whoever serves me must follow me," (cf. Jn 12:26), and so we must ask ourselves, "How better can I serve and follow Jesus Christ this Lenten season and beyond?"

Yes, Jesus Christ was a great teacher, and His preaching shows us that. Yet while history is filled with great teachers, there has only been one Savior of the World, the One lifted up that He might draw everyone to Himself (cf. Jn 12:32). Let us model His obedience and sacrifice, dying to self that we might really live in love with Jesus and with all our brothers and sisters.

The lesson Jesus is teaching us is rather easy to understand: Only through death comes new life. It is living this lesson that is not so easy. But, united with Jesus Christ, we can - and we will, not perfectly but perseveringly - until we experience that fullness of life promised to those who die with Christ so as to rise with Him!

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015