Fifth Sunday of Lent
16 Mar 2021
Steven P. Millies, PhD

Reading 1: Jeremiah 31:31-34
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 51:3-4, 12-13, 14-15
Reading 2: Hebrews 5:7-9
Gospel: John 12:20-33

This Sunday marks not only the Fifth Sunday of Lent but – at least, for those of us who are in Illinois – it also marks the first anniversary of the shelter-in-place order that began our long, isolated-yet-communal experience of this pandemic.  Now for one year, we all have been together and separated in this new reality.  Along the way, more than a half-million of our fellow Americans have lost their lives, millions more around the globe.  There have been signs of hope with the discovery of a vaccine and there have been signs of despair because the vaccine’s rollout has been so frustratingly slow and because there are people who will refuse the vaccine.

When we think back to last March 21, it is incredible to reflect on everything else that laid ahead with the pandemic.  We had not yet witnessed the murder of George Floyd or the #blacklivesmatter protests, and neither had we seen the horrendous overreaction to those protests.  The presidential campaign was well underway, but it would be more than two months before Joe Biden would secure the Democratic nomination and five months before we would learn his running mate would be Kamala Harris.  We already were concerned about whether everyone would accept the election outcome, but we had no idea how far things would go on January 6.  New realities always surprise us, but in recent times they overtake us with startling rapidity.

Newness is a theme of this week’s readings as our Lenten journey now begins to draw us nearer to Easter.  Our readings begin with Jeremiah’s announcement of “a new covenant with the House of Israel (and the House of Judah).”  God promises that this new covenant “will not be like the covenant I made with their” ancestors.  Something new is underway.  Jeremiah writes in the midst of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, a time when it would have seemed more proper to write about endings.  Instead, we read of hope that springs from God’s unrelenting desire to be near to God’s people.  A passage that follows shortly after this week’s lectionary selection tells us of the re-building of Jerusalem, how “it will never be destroyed again.”  And, in an earlier passage God tells them, “When you search wholeheartedly for me, I shall let you find me.”

This theme of endings becoming beginnings is echoed by this week’s Gospel, which finds Jesus explaining to Andrew and Philip that His hour has come.  Yet, “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.”  John’s Gospel does not pause much over how this must have sounded to Jesus’s friends, but we can imagine that the all too human disciples around Jesus might have had as much trouble hearing His message about newness of life as we often have.  It is so much easier in our world and in our own lives to let the terrible things that happen dominate our perspective.  Our human tendency is to respond with fear even when our faith tells us to have hope.  (We should not forget, even the fully human Jesus had this reaction in Gethsemane.)

As I write these words, the crocuses, daffodils, and tulips I planted around our home last fall are beginning to peek up through the soil.  Green shoots of new life spring up where just days ago there were several feet of snow dominating a bleak landscape that seemed to forbid any hope of rebirth.  Soon we will bless the new fire at the Easter vigil and we will recount the story of our salvation, the story of God’s loving desire to be near to God’s people.  We will hear of “Adam’s debt” (“O happy fault!”) and the story of Israel’s escape from Pharaoh’s chariots. We will hear how again and again God’s people turned their back on the God who saves them.  And, we will hear how again and again God calls us to be close.  “Turn to the Lord!  God can still be found.  Call out to God!  God is near.”  This story of mercy is a story of the newness that always waits for us, a constant springtime, even in the darkest moments.  Even when we have abandoned God.  Even when it can seem that God has abandoned us.

The dark moments we have seen must not be painted over with happy talk about good things that happened, too.  The hope of Easter is weightless without the sorrow of the Cross.  But rebirth is real.  Mercy is here.  Hope is justified.  From the senseless murder of George Floyd came the new awareness of systemic racism, hundreds of thousands of young people in the streets because they believe in the value and dignity of human persons.  From political violence has come a renewed commitment to civic engagement.  From this horrible pandemic, we hope, will come a new appreciation for the gift of gathering together in homes, backyards, churches, theaters, and everywhere else.

We have just lived through the longest Lent of our lives, twelve months of mortifying isolation and the constant reminders that to dust we will return.  Springtime is here.  Easter is coming.  We who have suffered and grieved with one another, cried out with one another, now are called to newness of life together to be a people of hope.

Steven P. Millies, PhD
Associate Professor of Public Theology
Director of The Bernardin Center for Theology and Ministry