Fifth Sunday of Lent
Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 50:3-4, 12-15; Hebrews 5:7-9; John 12:20-33
21 March 2021
Breaking open the word
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (Jn 12:23). But what sort of glory can come from being like a buried grain of wheat, from being “lifted up”, not on a throne, but on a cross? Today’s second reading provides a mysterious answer to this question posed by the Gospel. “Although he was Son, [Jesus] learnt to obey through suffering” (Heb 5:8).
Throughout the Scriptures, comparisons are drawn between two members of the household: those who are servants, and those who are sons. Both sleep under the same roof, eat from the same table, and enjoy the protection of the father of the family. Both cooperate in the work of the father— but one, under obedience, and the other, out of freedom. If you have a teenage son, he might not think there is much freedom involved in his sonship! But the scriptural worldview proposes that the true son is one who has been shaped in the school of the father until they share the same vision and freely seek the same end.
This worldview is presumed by today’s second reading, but with a twist. “Although he was Son, [Jesus] learnt to obey through suffering.” If Jesus is the perfect son, why did he need to obey? If Jesus is the perfect man, why did he need to learn? Why would suffering be the school of obedience? And how can this obedience help us to understand the mysterious exchange between Father and Son that we glimpse in today’s Gospel?
By his incarnation, Jesus joined a human nature to his divine nature in the unity of his divine person. Therefore, he has both a human will, like us, as well as the divine will. This sounds like a recipe for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, yet instead, Jesus’ humanity is a faithful servant to his divinity, delighting in obedience to the Father’s will. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, commenting on the writings of St Maximus the Confessor, explains that it is by this union of wills that Jesus becomes both our model of obedient sonship and the “source of eternal salvation” (Heb 5:9).
His “learning” to obey, however, was not the painful mess that normally characterises our learning experiences! The love between Father and Son overflowed into Jesus’ human intellect, which perfectly understood the plan of the cross, and into his human will, which perfectly desired the Father’s plan. Even Jesus’ human emotions were perfectly aligned with truth and reality, as ours so often fail to be. Yet, as we will hear on Palm Sunday, these emotions still responded naturally with fear and distress to the thought of what lay before him, thus providing Jesus with the opportunity to unite himself with us in the experience of learning to obey. He sanctifies the experience of acknowledging our valid emotional responses to the sufferings of this life, and yet choosing all the same to walk in love.
For it is only in moments of suffering that our true identity is revealed. Are we servants who flee, or sons who stay? By Baptism, the Father has planted his law deep within us, writing it on our hearts, so that with Jesus we can say, “Father, glorify your name!” His grace works on us from within, healing our disordered emotions, darkened intellect, and weakened will until at last we have the freedom of sons, and can be, with Jesus, the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and yields much fruit.
SR SUSANNA EDMUNDS OP
Reflecting on the Gospel through Art
The Agony in the Garden – Paolo Caliari (known as Paolo Veronese) (1528–1588)
The Agony in the Garden (c. 1582-83). Oil on canvas, 108 cm × 180 cm. Formerly at the church Santa Maria Maggiore in Venice, Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera. Public Domain.
“We should like to see Jesus,” some visitors ask St Phillip (Jn 12:21). This Gospel would have been well placed at the beginning of Lent, but it can also serve as our introduction to the coming Holy Week. The divine liturgy will not only proclaim Christ and his mystery, but will make that same Christ and his mysteries truly present in our very midst. “Christ is always present in his Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7). But in order that the sacred liturgy may produce its full effect, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions—that their thoughts match their words. This coming week could well be spent pondering the events of next week and the dispositions we need to take to the ceremonies, as the Council suggested, so that they may produce in us their desired effect.
Our Lord, himself, sets the ground rules. “Anyone who loves his life loses it” (Jn 12:25). God cannot come into our lives if we are full of ourselves. He can only fill us to the extent that we have emptied ourselves of all that is not God. The author, Caryll Houselander, calls Our Lady, “The Reed of God.” Reeds were used to make flutes, and the flute cannot fulfill its purpose until it is completely hollow. The implication for Our Lady is that she emptied herself to allow the breath of the Holy Spirit to fill her. It is he who is the Divine Flautist. “Breathe on me, breath of God,” we sing.
Blocking out God from our lives usually leads to blocking out others. We do not follow the instincts of self-preservation at the expense of our sisters and brothers. “Those insulated from others’ suffering, eager for good connections, popularity, and status, rather than finding and following Jesus, will lose their lives” (Sr Verna Holyhead SGS).
Paolo Caliari was born in Verona (and hence we know him as “Veronese”) in 1528, the son of a local stonecutter. He lived most of his life, however, in the city of Venice, influenced by the classical styles he found there. As early as 1550, he had started work on the decoration of the Doge’s Palace. He worked there on and off until his death in 1588, being buried in the Church of San Sebastiano, entirely decorated by him over the course of 20 years. His work was extremely popular both in life and after death—prints being produced of many of his paintings. His influence can be clearly seen on artists such as Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, Giovanni Tiepolo and Eugène Delacroix!
The Agony in the Garden dates from around 1582–83, documented in the archives of Venice’s Santa Maria Maggiore. It was taken to Milan in 1808. The scene illustrates today’s Gospel: “Now the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (Jn 12:23). Veronese focuses on the human side of Jesus. On becoming aware of the looming passion, he swoons into the comforting arms of an angel. It is St Luke, “Our dear doctor,” as St Paul calls him, who notes this fact. “Then an angel appeared to him, coming from heaven to give him (comfort)” (Lk 22:43). This is the second time in the Gospels, as we saw on the first Sunday, that Jesus was comforted by angelic messengers. “And the angels looked after him” (Mk 1:13). Both are in moments of temptation to take the easy way out. God is ever mindful of our human weakness.
Veronese has contrasted the figures of Jesus and his guardian angel bathed in light with the sleeping apostles covered in darkness! Almost out of nowhere appear isolated Roman columns, symbols of a world about to collapse.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews warns us not to sanitise Jesus’ sufferings. “In the days of his flesh” (Heb 5:7) Jesus experienced pain and disappointment. He knew what it was to be vulnerable and afraid, to be troubled to the depths of his being—a man in the prime of his life about to face execution by his own church and nation. Surely we are moved when we read: “He offered up prayer and entreaty, with loud cries and with tears” (Heb 5:7). That, despite his prayer he suffered greatly, places Jesus in solidarity with the suffering of his brothers and sisters throughout time. Throughout his life he had to come to discover what it meant to be “Son” (the temptations of the first Sunday), just as we must spend our lives discerning what it truly means to be the sons and daughters of God. That Jesus learned obedience through suffering makes him both our intercessor and our friend (today’s second reading).
This Sunday used to be commonly called Passion Sunday and ushered in the season of Passiontide. While the terminology no longer exists, the mood of the liturgy certainly changes today. The Lenten prefaces of the Mass are overtaken by the preface of the Passion, the images in the church are veiled so that all our attention is focused on the action of the liturgy, and the weekday Gospels are exclusively from St John who sets the scene for the coming drama.
MGR GRAHAM SCHMITZER
Sr Susanna Edmunds OP grew up participating in Holy Mass and youth groups in the Diocese of Broken Bay where she received a love for Sacred Scripture and evangelisation. While studying engineering at the University of Sydney, she discovered the beauty of Eucharistic Adoration, regular Confession and faith-filled friendships through the Catholic student society and chaplaincy. World Youth Day 2008 brought Pope Benedict XVI and several hundred thousand pilgrims to Sydney’s shores, along with many religious congregations. Supported by friends and family, Sr Susanna discerned an invitation from the Lord to belong to him with an undivided heart. She joined the Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia in 2010, moving to Nashville TN, USA, where the community’s motherhouse is located. After completing further studies in philosophy, theology and secondary education, Sr Susanna began teaching in 2015. She made her final profession as a religious in 2017, and since 2018 has been teaching high school religion at Trinity Catholic College in Auburn, NSW. The sisters teach at four schools across Sydney and Melbourne, as well as assisting with young adult catechesis, women’s retreats and vocation discernment.
Monsignor Graham Schmitzer recently retired as the parish priest at Immaculate Conception Parish in Unanderra, NSW. He was ordained in 1969 and has served in many parishes in the Diocese of Wollongong. He was also chancellor and secretary to Bishop William Murray for 13 years. He grew up in Port Macquarie and was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph of Lochinvar. For two years, he worked for the Department of Attorney General and Justice before entering St Columba’s College, Springwood, in 1962. Fr Graham loves travelling and has visited many of the major art galleries in Europe.