Saturday 24 March 2012

Will you hold the old, or grasp the new? Jer 31:31-34; Heb 5:7-9; Jn 12:20-33

Anticipation is the word that best describes what the readings of today convey. The first reading, from Jeremiah, begins with the words, “The days are surely coming”, and in the Gospel passage, Jesus responds to the arrival of the Greeks with the words “the hour has come”. What are these days?  What is that hour? What must we anticipate? What must we expect?

Jeremiah explains that the expectation is of a “new covenant”. This covenant is new, not because it will be made again or made anew with the people but primarily because it is a covenant unlike the earlier ones.  It is a covenant that will be written, not on stone tablets but on the hearts of all.

The effects of this covenant will be unlike the earlier ones.  This covenant will be kept by the people and not broken. The reason for this is that people will be convinced of it and know that it is a covenant for their good and for God’s glory. They will know that it is in their best interest to keep it. Instead of being like children, who only keep their parent’s rules because of the promise of reward or the threat of punishment, the people will keep God's law and live God's commandments because their own consciences directs them to. They will be convinced of the law in their hearts. Instead of a purely external conformity, God's law would now be internalized and people would pursue the right path because it would be part of their basic character and identity. This is what Jeremiah means when he talks about God's Law being planted deep within his people and written on their hearts. God takes the initiative in making this new covenant and shows this in his action of forgiving all sin and not remembering the iniquity of the people. He is a gracious God, a God who wants all to be saved.

This new covenant was made in the most perfect of ways when God made it in Jesus. In Jesus, sin was effectively forgiven and love took centre stage. This is confirmed directly at the end of the Gospel reading, in what is termed as the final passion, resurrection, and ascension prediction in the Gospel of John.  In that reading, Jesus states that, after he is lifted up on the cross/exalted by God, he will draw all people to himself. The effect of the “lifting up” of Jesus will be not condemnation but acceptance of people. Even when on the cross, Jesus will continue to save and to redeem. No one is excluded from this all embracing gesture of Jesus on the cross.

That Jesus could draw all to himself, only in and through the cross, is affirmed in his words about the wheat grain. Speaking of himself and his impending passion, he directs attention to a grain of wheat which can only give life when it dies to itself.  If the grain of wheat will not die, it remains what it is and will be unable to give new life.

The letter to the Hebrews picks up this theme and narrates the incident of the prayer of Jesus at Gethsemane.  On one level, Jesus would have preferred to save without the cross, and this was the content of the first part of his prayer when he asked the Father to take the cup away.  However, on the deeper level, he knew that the cross was not just one way, but the only way, and that is why he adds “not my will but yours be done”. Hebrews thus confirms that Jesus willingly chose to become like the grain of wheat which would fall, and die, in order to give life and save. This was Jesus’ “hour”, the hour when he would go to his death, but also, without doubt, the hour when he would be glorified; the hour in which all would be drawn to him. It was the hour when selfishness and self-centeredness was driven out from the world. It was the hour when saving one’s self and one’s life was done by losing one’s self and one’s life. It was the hour when death was conquered by new life. It was the hour when eternal and unconditional love, effectively and definitively, conquered sin.

This is, therefore, a cause for great joy and optimism. Though we know how often we have failed to live up to the promises we have made in the past, God continues to say to us at every moment: “See, I am making a new covenant”. Though we know how often we have fallen short and how we keep choosing sin over love, self centeredness over selflessness and effort over grace, God keeps inviting us to the “hour” of his son. This is the hour in which he will make all things new.

This newness, however, can never come about unless we, like Jesus, make a conscious decision to collaborate and co-operate with God. We have to dare, like Jesus, to become like that grain of wheat which will fall to the ground and die. We have to dare, like Jesus, to realize that, if we want do not die to ourselves, we will remain alone. We have to understand, like Jesus, that unless we die to our selfish ambitions and our selfish desires to have more, that unless we die to our petty dreams of personal advancement at the expense of the majority, God cannot make all things new. The newness that God brings in Jesus is a newness that needs our active co-operation and collaboration. It needs us to keep saying “Yes”.

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