March 22nd 2015 5th Sunday of Lent (B)

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection and Dialogue: A New Covenant and a News Heart

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

First Reading (Jeremiah 31:31-34). This is the renowned prophecy of the new covenant in the book of Jeremiah. It has been described as “one of the profoundest and most moving passages of the entire Bible”. As a point of teaching it represents the culmination of a long period of reflection within the legal and prophetic school that is represented by the Book of Deuteronomy and writings dependent on this group of Jewish scholars. Repeated infidelity and neglect of God’s message communicated through the prophets had brought about disaster. From disaster sprung the divine promise of hope and a better future. The law given through Moses remained something external; it did not give the power to live what it directed should be done. In today’s reading there is talk of a new covenant, with God’s law this time being written in the hearts of God’s people. A new age is envisaged in which there will be renewed knowledge of God, an equal knowledge of him among all sections of society. It will be an age in which Israel’s sins will be forgiven – and forgotten by God. But there does not appear to be any question of a replacement of the covenant earlier made at Sinai through Moses. Israel will still be God’s people, with God’s law which is not presented as differing from that already known as given through Moses. It is well to understand that like much of the prophetic vision of the future, this new promise is not something automatic, effected solely by divine power. It did not become a reality in all Israel overnight. The new heart, the new inner being, remained something to be humbly prayed for by Israel, as is evident from the beautiful Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 50) read in today’s Mass. The Qumran community called itself the New Covenant, but this community was merely the Mosaic covenant with strong legalistic tendencies. In instituting the Eucharist Jesus in his blessing over the cup said: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25). The Epistle to the Hebrews (8:8-12), the longest Old Testament in the New, cites the full text of Jeremiah’s prophecy (in the Greek translation), stressing that it was fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Christ. But Paul rightly stresses that the new covenant, written on believers’ hearts, becomes a living reality only by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. They, too, have constantly to pray Psalm 50: “A pure heart create for me, O God”.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 50). A pure heart create for me, O God.

Second Reading (Hebrews 5:7-9). This beautiful text presents one of the mysteries of Christ’s sufferings and his total obedience to the Father’s will and plan, as expressed elsewhere in the Gethsemane scene and in the Gospel of John, as read in today’s Mass. As Mark 14:35-36 puts it: “And going a little further he (Jesus) threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said: ‘Abba, Father, for your all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want but what you want’” (see also Matthew 26:39; Luke22:42.). Or in John’s Gospel, read today, where Jesus says: “Now my soul is troubled. What shall I say: Father, save me from this hour? But is was for this very reason that I have come to this hour, Father, glorify your name!”

Gospel (John 12:20-33). To appreciate this reading it may help to place it in the context of the plan of John’s Gospel. This Gospel may be considered to have two great divisions. The first is “the Book of Signs”, chapters 1-12; the second “the Book of Glory, chapters 13-20. A feature of the Gospel is the “hour” of Jesus, that is his passage from this world through death by crucifixion (for John his “lifting up”), and resurrection to glory with the Father. Today’s reading comes at the very end of the “Book of Signs”. The setting is in Jerusalem, at Passover time, when some gentiles (Greeks), favourable to the Jewish religion, came to worship. Jesus’ message in his ministry had been to Jews. Now Greeks are represented as wishing to “see” Jesus, and two apostles with Greek names (Philip and Andrew) approach Jesus on this issue. Jesus is said to have replied to them, but at first glance his “reply” had little connection with the Greeks’ request. It is all about Jesus’ “hour” which he sees as having come. The “hour” is that of in which he is to be glorified, by being “lifted up from the earth” on the cross. In a sense, like the grain of wheat, he dies, but will rise again to bear much fruit. His death means his victory over all forces contrary to his saving mission (“this world”, the devil, “the prince of this world”). By this victory on the cross (“when I am lifted up from the earth”) he will draw all people to himself, Greeks among others. By faith they can then “see” him in the full sense, as saviour exalted (“lifted up”) at the Father’s right hand. All this is a source of confidence for those who believe in him. His victory is theirs. But like him, to bear fruit for themselves and others, they too must die to all in themselves contrary to his message.

B. Ref lect ion and The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day: A New Covenant and a News Heart

Reflection. Dialogue with questions of the day does not necessarily mean only with the social, cultural, political non-Church life. The first dialogue of the readings must be with believers, since, as the Second Vatican Council (Document on Sacred Liturgy, paragraph 7) reminds us, Christ is present in his word, since it is he himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. A first message of the readings today is awareness of the new covenant, as a vision and a reality – a vision in Jeremiah and reality through Christ and the Holy Spirit. As Paul reminds us, the new covenant is a letter written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of the human heart. Paul and the church are made worthy to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:3,6). There must be constant humble response to this covenant by constant prayer to create a pure heart within us.

Another message with believers in this dialogue from today’s readings is that for Christ his crucifixion is a victory, his victory over all forces opposing his saving work, this “world”, the power of the devil and any other power. Jesus says all this to give confidence to his followers. He has given his victory to them. “I have said to you so that you may have peace. In the world you will have persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). The same message is for believers of all generations in time of attacks on their faith. Christ and the Holy Spirit are in their hearts and consciences to strengthen then. “The One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4), meaning any force trying to draw you away from Christ and the church. A little later the same writer gives the encouraging words of the victory of faith over adverse forces (“the world”); “Who it is who conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4).

The victory of which Christ speaks, won by him and given to believers, presumes that believers remain united with him, taking Jesus’ example of the grain of what, and dying to one’s passions and sinful ways.

Dialogue..        If we pass to dialogue with “the world”, with the society of our own day, sometimes unbelieving, we can bear the advice of 1 Peter 3:15-16 in mind: “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence”. While believers hold the truths of today’s readings, they as believers are involved in social life at all levels, the cultural, the political and others as well. But in all this they believe in the prime demands of Christ, recalling his words: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). The same would hold true (and much more so) for country, political party or anything else. There cannot be question of country or political party first and one’s Christian religion (which means the demands of Christ) afterwards. If such assertions are made, it can clearly be pointed out that allegiance to Christ and his Church does not take from political or cultural commitments.

It may not be too often that a person is called on to decide between allegiance to Christ, one’s religion, Church or political party or country. There is, of course, no intrinsic incompatibility between allegiance to Christ, the Church and social commitments. The contrary is the case, as devotion to God and Church has inspired and continues to inspire, involvement in community development. History proves it, and it is clear that the present political and cultural situation has arisen over the years from the commitment of believers in Christ, in the Church, and in Christ’s saving and liberating message to the advancement of humanity. The “dying to oneself” of the Christian message holds good in its own way for the lives of all, and leads to individual lives which inspire public confidence. Without constant self-restraint we end up with a broken society, prey to our worst instincts

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