Fifth Sunday of Lent
22 March 2015
St. Macartan’s Cathedral, 10.30am
One of the most extraordinary challenges in the teaching of Jesus Christ is to be found in the Gospel passage to which we have just listened. There were Greeks who wanted to see Jesus. In his reply, when he was told this, Jesus said “Unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain, but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest. Anyone who loves his life loses it; anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for the eternal life.” One could say that in these few sentences there is enough to exercise the mind for a long long time.
A field filled with young stalks of wheat is a beautiful sight especially if they are swaying in the wind and dancing in the sun. You could say that the process by which these stalks come into being is an unusual one. The grain of wheat is buried in the cold damp earth as in a tomb. Then it has to die. If it didn’t die no new life would come forth. But when it dies, from the grave of the old grain a shoot of new wheat springs up. It’s an amazing paradox – life coming from death. Just as the grain of wheat has to die in order to bear fruit, so we must die to self if we are to live fully and fruitfully and realise our full potential as human beings and as children of God.
This is one of the foundation stones of Christianity and one of life’s great paradoxes. Death is part of life. We are born to die, to die that we may live more fully. We are born to die a little each day to selfishness, to pretence and to sin. Every time we pass from one stage of life to another, something in us dies and something new is born. We taste death in moments of loneliness, rejection, sorrow, disappointment and failure. We are dying before our time when we live in anger, in bitterness, in hatred and in isolation. Each day we are shaping our own death in the way we live.
It is important that we should take what we read in today’s Gospel passage and put it in the context of the rest of the teaching of Jesus Christ; otherwise, we run the risk of misinterpreting it. When Jesus says “Anyone who loves his life loses it” and “anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it,” he is not telling us to hate our lives or ourselves. We have to learn to love ourselves. This is an essential part of the core of Christ’s teaching. God wants us to be merciful to ourselves and to others. Nobody can love us if we do not love ourselves. Unless we love ourselves we won’t be able love anyone else. Of course we have to distinguish between true love of self and selfishness.
It is not easy to find the right words but to forget self, to transcend self – that is what it means to lose oneself, to deny self, to die to self. It is when we forget ourselves that we are most free and most happy. It is in getting out of ourselves, in dedicating ourselves to causes beyond ourselves, that we grow and bear fruit. We may live longer if we take things easy, if we sit at the fire and pamper ourselves. Maybe we will exist longer rather than live longer if we do this. It would be a poor world if everyone put their own comfort, their own safety and security, and their own selfish advancement before everything else. If no one was prepared to go beyond themselves and their own needs it would be an impoverished world. It is always when people are prepared to die to self-interest and to give of their lives to the needy that the most precious things humanity possesses have been born.
Jesus not only taught us, he gave us an example. He gave his life in the service of the task entrusted to him by the Father and in his service of humanity. He didn’t find it easy. When the time came he talked about his feelings of abandonment and of fear. Jesus’ life was not taken from him. He gave it, out of love of the Father and of us. To love entails acceptance that we may die another kind of death before we die our own. The way of love is the way of the cross and the way of the cross leads to resurrection. Those who can die to self usually cope better with their own moment of death. The hour of death is meant to be a time of closure, of successfully completing a journey. It is by dying that we are born to eternal life.
Putting it in the form of a reflection:
Each of us is like a grain of wheat planted by God.
Just as a grain of wheat must die so as to produce a harvest, so we must die to self in order to bear the fruits of love.
This dying to self is a gradual process and happens in little ways.
Every act of humility involves dying to pride.
Every act of courage involves dying to cowardice.
Every act of kindness involves dying to cruelty.
Every act of love involves dying to selfishness.
And so the false self dies, and the true self, made in God’s image, is born and nurtured.
It is in giving that we receive, it is in forgiving that we are forgiven; and it is by dying that we are born to eternal life.
+Liam S. MacDaid
22 March 2015