5th Sunday of Lent
Fr. Joseph Levine; March 21, 2021
Readings: Jer 31:31-34; Ps 51:3-4,12-15; Heb 5:7-9; Jn 12:20-33
In the days when Christ Jesus was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.
I would like to paint for you a picture in words describing the suffering of Christ, but I can’t. It would be possible to describe in detail the physical suffering involved in a Roman scourging and crowning with thorns; it would be possible to describe in detail the physical suffering involved in a crucifixion. It has been done. Already that measure of physical suffering staggers and overwhelms our imagination but does not even enter into or hint at the pain felt by the soul of Christ.
Anyone of us can think of his experience of sheer physical pain and consider, “Christ suffered this and more.” He suffered more precisely because of the perfection of his body and soul. He had no pain relievers. He had no distraction, nor did he seek any distraction.
Still, so far, I am only speaking about the sheer feeling of pain. I have not even entered into the suffering contained in the words he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears.
We can think of his words to Peter, James, and John in the garden of Gethsemane, My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me. (Mt 26:38) We can think of the natural human dread of death, which he certainly experienced to the full, but even that only touches the surface. At the same time there is the human disappointment in his Apostles who instead of keeping him company fell asleep.
Yet, how can we even begin to grasp the supernatural reality of his interior vision, his grasp of why and for whom he was suffering, his vision of every human sin, ours included, and every act of ingratitude, every bit of negligence and forgetfulness. When he prayed to the Father that the cup might pass from him, he the innocent Lamb of God was experiencing the horror of taking on himself our sin.
St. Paul uses some powerful expressions to convey this reality: For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor 5:21) And, Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us. (Gal 3:13)
All this comes to completion in Christ’s incomprehensible cry from the Cross, in which he takes upon himself all of our anguish and all of our questions to God: My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? (Mt 27:46)
Now all of these extreme expressions push us beyond the limits of our comprehension, but we must be careful not to misinterpret them, by reducing them to the measure of our understanding. In his cry from the Cross, Jesus in his agony is actually quoting the first line of a Psalm (Ps 22) and his words must be understood in the context of the entire Psalm. In the midst of becoming ‘sin’, in the midst of becoming a ‘curse’, in the midst of his abandonment, the soul of Christ yet experiences in its deepest center the blessedness of his unbreakable union with God. That is the teaching of the saints.
That must be the case because we have not yet touched upon the most incomprehensible aspect of Christ’s suffering. We have not yet mentioned who this is who is suffering for us: “the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father” through whom all things were made.
At the very moment in which he cried out my God, my God, why have you abandoned me, he did not cease to be God, the very Son of God.
We can no more grasp the suffering of Christ than we can grasp that he is the very Son of God. We can no more grasp the suffering of Christ than we can grasp the true statement, “God died on the Cross”.
Last Sunday in the Gospel we heard the famous words: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but might have eternal life. (Jn 3:16) He gave his Son by giving him up to death on the Cross.
And we have the words of St. Paul: He did not spare his Son but gave him up for us all. (Rm 8:32) The Father gave his Son and the Son offered himself. Again from St. Paul: Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Eph 5:2)
Again, all this comes from God, who created each one of us and loves each one of us; in the words of the Psalmist: He fashioned each of their hearts. (Ps 33:15)
And in today’s Gospel we heard Jesus say, Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.
Now I can no more comprehend the fruit of Christ’s suffering and death than I can grasp his suffering itself. For the fruit of Christ`s suffering corresponds to the greatness of his divine person. The fruit of his suffering is the life of grace, a life that shares in the very life of God; It is the fruit of a clean heart; the fruit of a heart that belongs to the new and eternal covenant; the fruit of a heart in which the law of God is written; the fruit of a heart that ‘knows the Lord’. The most perfect fruit of Christ’s suffering is found in the Immaculate Heart of the Virgin Mary.
The Litany of the Most Precious Blood touches on some of this inexhaustible fruit of Christ’s suffering.
“Blood of Christ, price of our salvation, without which there is no forgiveness, Eucharistic drink and refreshment of souls, stream of mercy, victor over demons, courage of martyrs, strength of confessors, bringing forth Virgins, help of those in peril, relief of the burdened, solace in sorrow, hope of the penitent, consolation of the dying, peace and tenderness of hearts, pledge of eternal life, freeing souls from purgatory…”
If you read the life of one saint, you read about the fruit of Christ’s suffering and death. If you pray the Litany of Saints, each saint you name is the fruit of Christ’s suffering and death. All the saints, the countless saints in heaven, unknown during their life upon earth, are the fruit of Christ’s suffering and death. Their vision of God in heaven is the fruit of Christ’s suffering and death.
Today in our own time, Christ’s suffering and death continues to bring forth fruit in souls. His grace and mercy have not come to an end. In the words of St. Paul: Where sin abounds, grace abounds more. (cf. Rm 5:20)
His grace is there and available for us in abundance, but are we blocking it by our refusal?
What, then, are you looking for? When you consider what Jesus Christ suffered for you are you willing to die to sin, to be purified by his precious Blood so as to share his life?
You have been baptized, so by baptism you already belong to the new covenant about which Jeremiah prophesied. Do you want to belong to the new covenant completely and have the Holy Spirit write the law of God on your heart? Do you want to want what God wants and to delight in what he delights in?
Are you willing to pray with the Psalmist, Create a clean heart in me, O God?
Are you willing to pray: “Deliver me from the disorder of my desires, from the confusion and turmoil of my emotions, from the chaos and pollution of my imagination, forgive my sins, write your law upon my heart, establish my mind firmly in your truth, fix my will upon all that is true, good, and right, set my priorities in order, that I may love you above all things, seek the holiness of your name, the righteousness and glory of your kingdom, and so one day come to behold you face to face”?
That is what Christ came to give; he suffered and died that you might have that gift. Is that what you want? Are you willing not only to desire it and pray for it, but to do and suffer whatever Christ asks of you so as to receive the answer to your prayer?
Create in me a clean heart that I might truly know you, my Lord, my God, my Savior.