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Victor Cancino, S.J.March 12, 2024
Photo from Unsplash.

A few weeks ago, a parish in Missoula, Mont., participated in a Lenten retreat. The theme for their reflection was taken from the first chapter of John: “What are you looking for?” (1:38). One person remarked that the experience of praying with the Gospel of John for nine days was like listening to a beautiful love song to our Lord. This is a helpful description to begin to see what the fourth Evangelist is trying to communicate to his audience and to the world. If the Gospel of John is crafted like a beautiful love song, then today’s Gospel passage from John 12 can be understood as a crescendo moment in that music.

Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. (Jn 12:26)

Liturgical day
Fifth Sunday of Lent (B)
Jer 31:31-34, Ps 51, Heb 5:7-9, Jn 12:20-33

Can you recall a moment when a friend shared their faith experience with you?

When was the last time you shared a faith experience with someone you know?

Near the end of Lent, are you at peace? Struggling? Joyful?

The Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent begins with a movement of disciples and would-be disciples whom the writer calls “Greeks,” probably non-Jewish converts to Judaism. These curious Greeks have a request for Philip: “Sir, we would like to see Jesus” (Jn 12:21). Next, Philip tells Andrew about this, and both Andrew and Philip make the request known to Jesus. Here Andrew and Philip form a pair and work together within the Gospel of John. 

A similar movement happens in the opening chapter of John, where two disciples of John the Baptist begin to follow Jesus. One of them, Andrew, then goes and tells Peter and the next day goes out to find Philip. Then Philip goes out to tell Nathanael, “We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law, and also the prophets, Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth” (Jn 1:45). All this movement suggests an early church emphasis to share one’s experience of Christ with others and to work alongside another person of faith. 

At the beginning of Jesus’ appearance in the fourth Gospel, he tells his followers to “come and see” what it is all about (1:39). From Chapters 1 through 12, the disciples and “the world” have witnessed seven signs, which form the Book of Signs in this Gospel. The first sign is the changing of water to wine at Cana, while the last sign is the raising of Lazarus from his tomb in Chapter 11, the chapter before today’s Gospel reading. Completing these seven signs seals Jesus’ fate. They collectively lead him closer to his passion and death, but also closer to his resurrection and ascension. Now that even the Greeks wish “to see”—that is, to come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah—Jesus announces the high moment of his purpose, that of returning to the Father, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (Jn 12:23).

Jesus’ “hour” is here. The next movement is clear for him and for his followers. “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies,” says Jesus to his disciples, “it remains just a grain of wheat, but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (Jn 12:24). In the fourth Gospel, the depiction of suffering a gory crucifixion is embraced with a strange mixture of calm, joy and exultation. This unnatural embrace of one’s unlawful coming death is, according to the Gospel of John, a fully developed theology of martyrdom. Is Jesus at all worried? Only for a brief moment, no more and no less. All one hears from Jesus’ agony is a somber, “I am troubled now” (Jn 12:27). This troubled spirit is left behind. There is no need for the Father to rescue Jesus from his passion; “It was for this purpose that I came to this hour” (Jn 12:27).

As the church nears the end of this somber season, the Gospel of John ascends to a beautiful interpretation of Jesus’ approaching hour of glorification. Jesus’ purpose is to show a life given away freely, happily. This is not the sorrow of the synoptic tradition’s rendition of the passion. In the fourth Gospel, Jesus’ hour is a happy one. The followers of Jesus are asked to embrace this same hour—if possible, with somber joy.

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