The National Catholic Review
John R. Donahue
Three Gospel stories for Lent and Easter
Image
Strains of “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days” echo through many parishes during Lent as a summons to imitate Jesus in fasting and prayer. But too much emphasis on the penitential dimension of the six weeks of Lent can obscure the fact that the seven weeks of Easter also shape the liturgical season. Like ripples from a stone cast into a pond, Lent grew from the Easter celebration of the paschal mystery, backward to the six weeks of preparation and forward to the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost.

One of the most innovative restorations of the liturgy after the Second Vatican Council was to place the three great readings from the Gospel of John (about the Samaritan woman at the well, the man born blind and the raising of Lazarus) into the Lenten Sunday readings of Cycle A, and in the other cycles when there are people in the community preparing to be baptized during the coming Easter vigil. Originally part of the scrutinies (examinations) of baptismal candidates and read only on select weekdays in Lent, they now guide the whole people of God to a renewed appropriation of Christ’s saving gifts and the continuing presence of the Spirit. They preview those key insights of the Gospel of John that will resonate from Easter to Pentecost.

On the first two Sundays of Lent, the Gospels tell of the testing of Jesus in the desert and the Transfiguration, summarizing the meaning of the Lent-Easter season. The readings focus on a message contained in one of the oldest Christian hymns (Phil 2:5-11), which heralds Christ Jesus who, though “in the form of God took on the form of a slave” and suffered the ultimate human test, death on the cross, only to be exalted and given a name above every other name. In the three weeks that follow, the Gospel readings from John use symbol and story to guide the church to the threshold of Easter.

Origen called John “the spiritual Gospel,” and the theologian John S. Dunne has described the fourth Gospel as “the essence of Christianity” and “a reading glass for reading all else.” In this narrative of the “Word made flesh,” Jesus speaks as one “from above” and most often in the allusive and rich language of symbol and story. Taking a cue from Paul Ricoeur’s famous dictum that “symbol gives rise to thought,” I offer some thoughts on the symbolism of these three great Lenten Gospel readings, which guide us along our way to discipleship and lead to abundant life with God.

“Symbol” and “symbolic” are two of the most evocative and widely defined terms in any language. As Craig Koester has written in Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, symbol is “an image, or action, or a person that is understood to have transcendent significance,” and “in Johannine terms, symbols span the chasm between what is ‘from above’ and what is ‘from below’ without collapsing the difference.” Just as the “fleshly” Jesus reveals the mystery of God, concrete images from human life and history open minds and hearts to the transcendent. John speaks in the archetypal symbols of water, light, darkness, earth and life, breath and spirit, but also uses images from the everyday experience of his readers: wine, bread, shepherds, paths and roadways, vines and branches. A treasury of Old Testament images and allusions is woven into the Gospel’s tapestry.

Taken as a whole, the Johannine images from Chapters 4 (water and spirit), 9 (light) and 11 (life conquering death) evoke the opening words of Genesis, where the spirit of God hovers over the water, light is created, and nature and human life follow, originally free of death: “God formed man [and woman] to be imperishable” (Wis 2:23). Within each Gospel reading are multiple symbols that shape the narrative and reverberate throughout John’s Gospel. From antiquity to the present, these symbols have prepared faith seekers for Christian baptism.

Thirsting for the Water of Life

A thirsty Jesus at the sixth hour (foreshadowing another sixth hour when he will cry out “I thirst”) stops at a well. A well is a traditional site in Jewish history of meetings between future spouses, including Isaac and Rebekah (Gn 24:10-21), Rachel and Jacob (Gn 29:1-13) and Moses and Zipporah (Ex 2:13-22). This story appears in the Cana-to-Cana cycle of John (2:1-12–4:46), which stretches from Jesus’ appearance as the true bridegroom, who provides wine for a wedding, up to the moment when John the Baptist points to Jesus as the groom to whom is given the new Israel (Jn 3:27-30). In the scene at the well, Jesus “woos” the Samaritan woman to come to the fountain of living water. From betrothal imagery at the well, the inchoate symbolism of water streams out.

Commentary on the saving power of water permeates John’s entire narrative. He writes that Jesus will baptize with “the Holy Spirit” (Jn 1:33); Jesus himself proclaims that no one can enter the kingdom unless he or she is born “of water and Spirit” (Jn 3:5). The Samaritan woman looks for “living water,” that is fresh spring water, not stagnant water from a cistern; but Jesus promises “water of life” and that the woman herself will become “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn 5:14). The conversation anticipates Jesus’ proclamation: “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink, for as Scripture says: ‘Rivers of living water will flow from within him.’” At Jesus’ death, blood and water will flow from his side, a symbol of the moments before birth—not just the birth of an infant, but of the new community in the Spirit (Jn 19:34).

The catechumens, making their way to baptism, are initiated into the deep symbolism of water as containing the spirit of God from creation, and as an answer to their thirst for life and meaning. They are led to a host of Old Testament allusions. Like the parched Israelites, they will be sustained by streams of water (Nm 20:2-10); like the woman at the well, believers come to draw water and receive the water of life.

While these Johannine symbols lead to engagement with the mystery of the Word made flesh, they also shed light on the challenge of discipleship. The dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman concludes when the woman voices her hope for a messiah. Jesus responds, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you” (Jn 7:26). The woman runs off, leaving her unfilled jug, since her deeper thirst has been quenched. She becomes an apostle to the Samaritans, who then come to Jesus. Similarly, the already baptized followers of Jesus and those who are preparing for baptism in every age are invited to enter the world of Johannine symbol, where, as Craig Koester has written, “the mystery of God is encountered but not comprehended.” Christians are also called to convey the beauty and power of this world to others, a mission now called evangelization.

A Light for My Path

The second Gospel reading is the long, dramatic story of the man born blind (Jn 9). Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Tabernacles (Sukkoth), a joyous autumn festival when people build little booths or tents to recall their dwellings during the wilderness wanderings and arrival in a land flowing with milk and honey. The days and nights were filled with singing, dancing and ceremonies during which priests carried water from the pool of Siloam to the temple (perhaps for use as sacrifices for the rainy season). Tabernacles was also a feast of lights. Four great menorahs were erected in the temple so that, as the Jewish Mishna records, “there was not a courtyard in Jerusalem that did not reflect the light of the House of Water Drawing.”

The narrative drama points clearly to a baptismal catechesis. The motif of washing leading to sight anticipates baptism at the Easter vigil, and the story also suggests that the journey involves persecution. Once the blind man receives sight, he enters a world without Jesus. Yet as he is berated and questioned by Jewish officials, his insight into the person of Jesus grows. His descriptions move from “the man Jesus,” to “prophet,” to “worshiper of God” and finally to a confession of Jesus as “the Son of Man.” Like two elevators passing, the blind man’s accusers descend into spiritual blindness as he moves up toward the true light of Jesus. The narrative does not simply contrast the blind with those who see. Rather, it distinguishes those who know they are blind from those who claim to see. The blind man’s brash fidelity during Jesus’ absence offers John’s persecuted community a model of courageous witness.

Rich symbols also suffuse this narrative. In his interpretation of the mixture of saliva and clay used to restore the man’s sight, Irenaeus of Lyons wrote that Jesus “was making clear that this was the same hand of God through which man was formed from clay.” The Evangelist unveils the baptismal symbol by disclosing that the washing in the pool of Siloam refers to Jesus as the one “sent.” The primal symbol of light, sounded first in the Prologue—“In him was life, and that life was the light of men” (Jn 1:4)—shapes the first part of the Gospel with its rhythmic pattern: the light came into the world, but the world did not accept the light and remained in darkness (esp. Jn 3:19-21); it culminates in Jesus’ proclamation, “I am the light of the world” (Jn 9:5).

Our contemporary celebration of Easter begins on Holy Saturday, when the darkness is broken by the cry, “Light of Christ,” and the paschal candle reminds us of the risen Christ. When godparents present a lighted candle to the newly baptized, they remind all that Christ is the light of the world and that the neophytes are to walk in the light of Christ’s teaching and example.

Downfall of the Last Enemy

As Holy Week approaches, the narrative of the raising of Lazarus is the final and greatest symbol of Jesus’ public life: the promise of eternal life. It is one of the most vivid and dramatic stories in John’s Gospel and concludes the Book of Signs (Jn 1–12). The narrative is located between Jesus’ description of the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep and the decision of Jewish leaders that “one must die for the people.” It enfleshes Jesus’ own praise of that greater love that lays down life for a friend (Jn 15:13): Jesus, who brings living water and is the source of light, restores life to a beloved friend at the cost of his own life (Jn 11:45-53).

Like the story of the woman at the well, this narrative unfolds as Jesus speaks with a woman. The plight and grief of Mary and Martha, two sisters whom Jesus loves, is vivid. Jesus’ own grief is intense as he collapses in tears.

Each previous narrative had a symbolic “shadow side”—religious competition and division in the story of the Samaritan woman, the spiritual blindness of official teachers in the story of the man born blind. In this story, the intensity of emotion symbolizes the power of that last enemy, death, while the image of Lazarus emerging from the door of death symbolizes the power of life.

Deeper meanings to the story emerge after Martha’s misunderstanding of Jesus’ promise, “Your brother will rise.” Jesus responds, “I am the resurrection and life; whoever believes in me even if he dies will live, and every one who lives and believes in me will never die” (Jn 11:23-25). This is the culmination of the promise of John’s Prologue, “What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race” (Jn 1:2-4). It is also the prelude to the Book of Glory (Jn 13–21), which will guide readers to Pentecost.

Memory and Hope

Over 14 centuries ago at the basilica of St. John in Ephesus, built by the Emperor Justinian on the traditional site of the tomb of St. John, catechumens stood by a large baptismal pool. They were thirsting for life and love, drawn by the Father to Jesus. They had been examined on the same chapters of John that are at the heart of Lent today. They put off their old selves and were baptized into the waters of Christ’s death so that they might walk in newness of life. Today Christians are called to nurture themselves on these same texts as they hunger and thirst for the Word of life and the gift of the Spirit.

Read an archive article about loving Lent by Jane L. Wiesman here.

John R. Donahue, S.J., is a research professor in theology at Loyola College, Baltimore, Md. He wrote Americas column The Word from 1999 to 2002.