The Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent in Cycle B is according to Saint John (12:20-33), and it contains sayings by Jesus that preachers from the days of the Church Fathers until the present have found important for their homilies. There is Jesus saying that unless a grain of wheat dies in the soil, it cannot live again; later on, Jesus says that when He is raised up, He will draw everyone to Himself.
In the late seventh and early eighth centuries, this text from Saint John, evoking John 3:14-15, had special significance for the Venerable Bede and his brother Benedictines of the abbey of Saint Paul’s, Jarrow. In his history of the abbots of his monastery, Bede recorded that their founder abbot, Benedict Biscop, returning from his fifth trip to Rome, brought back books and paintings. While the books were for the monastic library, the paintings were for the church.
Those paintings were in pairs, one depicting a scene from the Old Testament, the other depicting a corresponding scene from the New Testament. One pair, said Bede, was of the brazen serpent raised on a pole, its parallel being Jesus raised on the Cross. Thus, the visual arts adorning their abbey’s church reinforced for those monks what they had learned from reading Saint Augustine: “The New Testament is hidden in the Old, the Old is made manifest in the New.”
It is an exegetical approach the Church still maintains as not only valid, but essential. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section 117, it states, “We can acquire a more profound understanding of [biblical] events by recognizing their significance in Christ.” As for these signs and symbols, commentators like to point out that the serpent and the lion are the only animals in the Bible that stand both for Christ and for Satan, since evil is not a separate creation, but a perversion of the good.
In a monastic context, this passage from Saint John’s Gospel offers a rich source for meditation upon a monastic commitment to seek Christ, and in so doing, to seek God’s grace for pursuing the monastic vow of ongoing conversion. What follows are suggestions for how to begin that sort of meditation upon this part of the holy Gospel. If these remarks can help someone who lives outside the walls of a monastery, so much the better.
At the start of this text, Saint John said that at Passover some Greeks were in Jerusalem, and they asked Philip if they could see Jesus. Church Fathers such as Saint Cyril of Alexandria and Saint Augustine of Hippo took these Greeks to have been Gentiles, since the word used by Saint John, Hellenes, refers simply to Greeks, not to Hellenistai (as in Acts 6:1), Hellenized Jews. In the twentieth century, this nuance was understood by Scripture scholars such as William Barclay and Raymond Brown.
These Greeks are part of a pattern that occurs elsewhere in the Gospel. Saint Matthew recounted how Wise Men from the East, Magi, that is to say, Gentiles, sought out the Christ child. Like the Greeks in this passage from Saint John’s Gospel, they had to ask someone else to show them where Jesus is. When we seek Jesus, we need the help of others. In that search, God’s mysterious providence can use either a saint like Philip or a sinner like Herod.
It is worth noticing that these Greeks who approached Philip, like the Magi before them, were on a spiritual journey seeking Jesus. Lost sheep notwithstanding, Jesus was not out searching for them. Whether as a baby in a cradle or as an adult in the Temple, Jesus was the fixed point to which they must go.
Here what Saint John related connects with one of the most disturbing scenes in the Gospel. According to Saint Mark (1:30-45), after a leper in Galilee had come to Jesus for healing, and Jesus healed him, Jesus could not come to where people lived: “But he [the healed leper] went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in the country; and people came to Him from every quarter.”
It is chilling to consider that all our chattering about Jesus keeps Him from coming to people. After all, a lot of times when we are so eager to talk about what Jesus has done for us, it is really yet another way for us to talk about ourselves. A lesson comes from Philip. When the Greeks asked him to see Jesus, he took them to Andrew, who then took them to Jesus. It was a role Andrew had played before, taking his brother, Simon Peter, to meet Jesus.
Those Greeks were not seeking Philip or Andrew, they were seeking Jesus. Both Philip and Andrew were wise enough to know that their role was as a guide or an usher, or like a butler answering the door. No one makes vows to seek Philip or Andrew or us; a Christian’s vow is to seek Christ. Our own testimony is best kept in silence as we lead others to our Lord.
By the grace of God, though, our inadvertent, self-absorbed blocking of Jesus from going to other people does not stop them from seeking Him. When the Greeks that Saint John recorded do meet Jesus, He tells them, “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If any one serves me, he must follow me; . . . if any one serves me, the Father will honor him.”
When our seeking finally brings us to Jesus, His message to us is not a bear hug and the exclamation, “Dude, welcome to my awesome ministry!” Instead, Jesus cuts right to the heart of our quest: Get over yourself, and follow me, which means becoming God’s servant, like a butler answering the door.
There we encounter true Lenten austerity and asceticism. Forty days in the wilderness of Lent, a long desert sojourn seeking Jesus, leads us to the fixed point where He is raised up, raised up first by us men in torture and death on a cross, then raised up by the Father from the death that by our sins we rightly deserve.