Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say– `Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. John 12: 20-33.
In today’s passage from John’s Gospel, we feel the imminent approach of the Passion, as though the gravitational forces surrounding the Cross were drawing Christ to them. Just as these Greeks (who may have been Gentiles or may have been Hellenized Jews) come seeking after Jesus, Christ announces that His ministry is coming to its fruition. It’s a terribly strange notion of fruition, however, because Jesus teaches his disciples that while he will be “glorified”, His glorification will entail His death. Jesus compares Himself to a grain of wheat, a self-description consistent with his earlier announcement: “I am the bread of life.” John 6:35.
While the world struggles to see Jesus in his glory, Jesus teaches that death isn’t the end of the story. Placing this story in context, Jesus hinted at this teaching earlier. We should recall that just one chapter earlier, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. We already have a sense, therefore, that Jesus’ ministry will entail a redefinition of “dying”. This new understanding will entail the notion that surrendering our autonomy (serving Jesus rather than ourselves) and involves following Jesus even following Him through death’s door.
Jesus does not face these facts lightly, admitting that this prospect troubles His soul. I suspect it shook Him to his core, just as it should trouble us. Despite these terrible struggles, Jesus knows that the reason for the Incarnation lies within this hour, within these events. God then announces His intention to use these horrific events for the glory of His name and kingdom. As is so often the case in John’s Gospel, however, the people misunderstand and think it’s just the thunder, or maybe an angel.
Once again, John plays upon the double-meaning of the notion of Jesus being “lifted up”. This time, the phrase carries with it the double meaning of Jesus lifted up on the cross, and his ascension into heaven. Again, this passage recalls Moses lifting up the bronze serpents in the wilderness, healing those who look upon it. Jesus says that when He is lifted up from the earth, He will draw all people to Himself.
Now, we begin to get a sense of the remarkable gravitational pull of Jesus and the cross, drawing all of mankind into their vortex. In that gravitational maelstrom, we will encounter the unbearable weight of the cross, which even Christ could not carry alone. Within that vortex, we find love, hatred, beauty and pain, humanity, and God.
In the 26th verse of this passage, Jesus tells his followers, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am there will be my servant also.” This passage echoes with the name God offers Moses as the name of the divine. Ex. 3:14 (“I Am Who I Am”). Following Jesus requires presence, but offers the gift of the presence of the Father.
If, like those first century Greeks, we “wish to see Jesus”, this is no time to cover our eyes. It’s happening now; “the hour has come”. Jesus views these events as God’s judgment on the world, which will bring about the expulsion of our Ancient Enemy. (In the Greek, the word for that judgment is krisis, from which we derive our word “crisis”.) Jesus came for this time, and those who follow Him must go through this Passion with Christ.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis
It amazes me that God gives us so many metaphors to help us to understand His purposes, such as the grain of wheat that must fall to the earth and die in order to multiply itself. Jesus also promises us that if we live and believe in Him, we shall not die. Though we die, yet we shall live, He tells us. His love overwhelms me, to think that He suffered like this to open the gates of Heaven for you and me…
I don’t mean to ramble, but your teachings always cause me to do that. Thank you for the thought-provoking and soul-stirring messages!
Yes, I think you’re right: Holy Scripture is written in the language of poetry. You’ve correctly pointed us to one of many of the passages in which God teaches us about paradox: dying is the key t life.
Thank you for your kindness, encouragement and support.
Dear Brother James,
I remember well your post on Christmas Eve about heaven and earth colliding in the birth of Christ. From that night onward, you have developed that theme in powerful ways, and you continue to do that in this post now. I always get a sense of peace from you, both in your posts and in your responses to comments. But you also don’t mince words about this issue of heaven and earth colliding, first in the birth of Christ and now in his passion. Thank you for challenging us to take up our cross here and now.
Yes, it’s a theme that occurs pretty regularly in my thoughts.
You are very kind, and I thank you for the encouragement.
God’s great peace,
Knowing what was coming…..there was that point of struggle in Gethsemane and then acceptance and surrender to God’s will. Little by little He leads us the same way. There is a freedom in this surrender that is unlike anything else, terrifying though the prospects may be.
I often wonder if blessed St Francis and his disciples felt the same way when they walked into enemy territory to have words with those who were oppressing others?
Wonderful post as ever, my dearest of brothers.
My dear Constantina,
Yes, the pathos of that moment in Gesthemene always touches us at our deepest hearts, doesn’t it? Learning to surrender is a deep challenge, not unlike the vow of obedience.
I think God probably did bless Francis, as He blessed Dominic, and all those good souls who set aside their own safety for the sake of the Kingdom. God give us such good courage.
Pax et bonum, my friend,
I do want to see Jesus, and I feel “all in” at times perhaps like the disciples. But, then I get tired of descent. I become rebellious and selfish. Always grasping for life that isn’t life becomes the rhythm. At least Jesus understood that dying is hard work.
I think He understood that both dying and living is hard work. I love the notion of always grasping for the life that isn’t life.
Peace on you and your house,