When we began the season of Lent, the Holy Rule called us to spend extra time in prayer and holy reading, and practice an extra measure of asceticism. On Ash Wednesday, scripture called us to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Since then, we have been with Jesus in temptation and transfiguration. We saw his teachings overturn comfortable patterns along with the moneychangers tables. We heard him tell Nicodemus to be reborn, yet the evangelist said that some will hang back: that some people “preferred darkness to light.”
This is the last Sunday before Passion Sunday. Jesus speaks of eternal life through the metaphor of a grain of wheat. It must dies before new life is visible. How much more difficult than a little prayer, fasting, and almsgiving!
The Seed’s Story
Jesuit Fr John Foley views the call from the seed’s perspective. It has no desire to leave the familiar safety and comfort of its shell. The growing seed is surprised when its shell becomes tight. It is shocked, frantic, when the shell splits and breaks open.
In Fr Foley’s story, the seed become agitated in surroundings it does not understand. Perhaps it offered up “loud cries and tears” like those of Jesus in this week’s second reading. But the disintegration of its familiar world continues.
In desperation, the seed extends a thin new arm through the cracks in its shell. The seed is confused, uncertain. Intuitively, as if guided by an unseen law written in its very DNA, it turns upward. It does not know where it is going, but every cell surges forward.
I expected Fr Foley to write a rapid happy ending. Instead, he placed a large rock, hard clumps of dirt, and a tough crust in the seedling’s path. It maneuvered to continue upward. We worry: will its struggle and death be fruitless after all?
All hangs in the balance.
Unless it falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. It will bear no fruit.
“I am troubled now,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel.
It is easy to slide past the anguish and uncertainty of this moment because we know the victorious ending. Scripture scholar Fr. Raymond Brown convincingly argues that Jesus, like us, did not foresee the exact way in which the Father would bring him into eternal life. Like the seedling, like us, he faced the reality of death.
“What should I say?” Jesus asks, “’Father, save me from this hour’?
But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour.” In the Gospel, God’s voice speaks from heaven. The seedling hears the life force whispering, “Push! Push! I am with you.”
When we respond to Christ’s call to follow him, he calls us let go of the safe and familiar. He cracks open our old shells that we may be reborn into new life.
Is this not true for our community as well? Is this not what is meant by the refounding of religious life? But, like the seed, we must choose light over darkness.
Ted Dunne says that the refounding of religious life is transformational, a shift of paradigms. In this time of perilous transition, many religious communities will become extinct. We cannot tweak our way into rebirth.
But what are we to say? Father, hide us from this hour? But this is the hour, this is the plot of soil, which God has given to us. In the silence, we can hear the divine voice whispering within us, “Push! Push! I am with you.”
Preparing to Bear Fruit
Ted Dunne tells us that this refounding involves experimentation. We must develop new mindsets and new heart-sets.
Like Jesus as he prepares to leave all he has loved on earth, refounding requires us to grieve what will die while simultaneously giving birth to a new way of being.
The readings for this Sunday bring us to the threshold of Holy Week. We hear Christ’s invitation to newness of life. He shows us the path: to be ready to lose our familiar way of life, to fall to the ground like a seed and die. We too hear the divine voice calling us to embrace the paschal mystery and to bear much fruit.
May it be so.
Brown, Raymond. (1997). Introduction to New Testament Christology. Yale University Press.
Dunne, Ted. (2009). Refounding Religious Life: A Choice for Transformational Change. In Human Development 30:3.
Foley, John, S.J. (2018). Coming to Pieces. On St. Louis University Sunday Website at http://liturgy.slu.edu/5LentB031818/reflections_foley.html