Poison and Antidote
Fifth Sunday of Lent. Fr Richard Finn calls on us to enter into Christ’s self-sacrifice.
John’s Gospel is building to a show-down. You can feel the rising tension. The Pharisees are watching for an opportunity to attack Jesus. And as they complain in the verse immediately preceding our passage, Jesus is increasingly the focus of wider attention: ‘the world has come after him’. At Cana, at the outset of his public ministry, Jesus told his Mother that his ‘hour’ had not yet come. Now, he tells us, it is here.
The question is whether we can see the show-down for all it really is. At one level Caiaphas and the religious authorities will conspire to face down a threat to their privilege, to sacrifice one man for the sake of ‘the people’. This first show-down is of their making. We will watch one man being scapegoated, arrested, tortured, and executed in a small but expedient piece of realpolitik.
What Jesus now seeks to teach the crowds, however, is that at the same time another definitive show-down will take place between God himself and the devil, ‘the ruler of this world’. There is to be a ‘judgement’, a decisive victory of good over evil. To our amazement, this second show-down is to be played out in exactly the same events as the first: the betrayal and passion of Jesus Christ. The hour of Jesus’ glory is none other than the hour of his suffering: ‘Now my soul is troubled.’
We should not pass too quickly over this avowal, this confession of how deeply Jesus is moved, how badly he is thrown by the recognition of what now faces him. We should not pass on too quickly, first because that would be to reinforce our own inhumanity, a callous disregard. But there is another reason to pause at this bleak confession of human vulnerability. For what does Jesus do here? He turns to his Father in prayer.
In that prayer his inner turmoil is offered up to the Father and, in the light of all that he has already preached and done to proclaim the Father’s kingdom, Jesus now accepts the violence to come. What others plot, he willing takes upon himself as an act of love, of self-sacrifice.
We need to linger over this, because this is how the first show-down becomes its very opposite. This is how the poison becomes its own antidote. There is no magic, no hidden mechanism, but the loving prayer of Son for Father, a prayer which thereby gives new meaning to what will come. You might say that by this prayer everything to follow will itself have the character of a prayer, an act of self-surrender, a self-offering of the Son to his Father. And as this prayer is answered by the Father, so will that final prayer be answered resoundingly in the resurrection of Jesus.
In our first reading, Jeremiah speaks of God writing his law on our hearts. It is the law of love itself. You shall love the Lord your God … and you neighbour as yourself. What does that image mean, to write on the heart? It isn’t as though our hearts have known nothing of God’s law. We are each of us made in the image and likeness of God. We were given reason. We were made for love. That’s what makes it possible for us to develop in adult life an informed conscience, and to follow it. Mind and heart can so inform each other as to point us to the truth.
But God’s image was obscured by sin. Conscience was weakened and distorted. The writing had to be restored and written into the very structure of our desiring by the cross of Christ.
By baptism that writing has already made its mark in us. And the time will come when God’s law is second nature, when our hearts will no longer be fickle, deceitful, grudging. We will no longer be selfish. We shall follow God’s law – not because we have to, but because we really want to, because we shall see his will for us as the nothing other than the expression of our true good and of God’s love for us.
To complete the process, though, now requires a battle with our petty selfishness in what is a form of death. That is why Jesus speaks of losing our life in order to find life. It is a form of death, because, as the Letter to the Hebrews suggests in the second reading, after the learning of hard truths about ourselves, we must sacrifice wrongful pleasures, habitual injustices, false gods. And it hurts to surrender those ways of living. It hurts both when we first start to serve others and when we seek to deepen that service.
Whatever our age, we can’t say that we’ve finally cracked it, that there’s nothing left to tackle, that we are immune from these growing pains. But as the soul of Jesus was troubled, and as Jesus offered up his anguish in prayer, so, too, we must experience the anguish of discipleship, and hope to find his resolve as that anguish is lifted up to God in prayer.